Duck Baker has been a figure in the acoustic guitar scene since the 1970’s and The King of Bongo Bong, his third record on the Kicking Mule label, highlights his interest in swing, blues and folk guitar. Duck would, later in his career, delve as deeply into Celtic and other traditional styles as he does into 20’s-era swing guitar on this recording. The four-to-the-bar style is prominent on a number of these tracks, and as usual with Duck Baker, a nylon-string guitar is played throughout the album. Duck mixes his playing with both strummed-chord comping on the more upbeat numbers and fingerstyle on the more intricate tunes, oftentimes blending the two picking styles.
The album kicks off with “New Righteous Blues”, a Baker/Stefan Grossman duet which oddly introduces Duck’s playing as accompaniment to Grossman’s soloing over the track. Though some of Stefan’s lead lines are tasteful, his pentatonic leads packed with skillful string-bends, this ever-present soloing seems overpowering in its presence throughout the track. Duck’s admirably honest voice doesn’t quite command one’ s attention enough to make this a strong vocal piece, either, which makes it a diffused rag-blues workout. Blind Blake’s 1930 recording of this song is far more compelling in its buoyant rhythm and highly syncopated style, and Blake’s original falsetto on the answering lines is missed in this updated version. “Deep River” features another prominent lead guitar contribution by Grossman, who also produced this album.
The gypsy swing of “Crazy Rhythm” is a faithful and exciting romp in Django-style jazz. Duck holds down the beat with appropriate rhythm guitar accompaniment, and also shows a flair for this style of lead playing with an overdubbed solo. This was unique for a guitarist in the Kicking Mule stable, though other acoustic acts in the States were beginning to incorporate gypsy jazz sounds into their repertiores. The year following this recording saw Stephane Grappelli guesting on US albums such as David Grisman’s Dawg Music (1977). This famous accompanist to Django exerted an enormous influence on players such as Mike Piggott, the violinist who contributes to several tunes on Bongo Bong.
“I Found a New Baby,” a jaunty hodge-podge of minor blues and swing, brings Duck’s guitar to the front of the mix, and the idiomatic sound of the nylon guitar in this context is classic Baker. Picking more forcefully than would a classical player, the strings pop with the attack Duck applies to this number, and in a small way, this forces the listener to reframe the role of the nylon guitar in contemporary music. “There’ll Be Some Changes”, “I Ain’t Got Nobody” and the title track continue the mid-tempo swing mood. On these, Duck sings in a way that suggests a self-awareness of the derivative nature of performing these types of songs decades on… his vocals are nostalgic without surrendering to parody, more homage than irony.
“No Love”, a self-penned and classical sounding piece, is one of 3 solo guitar pieces presented on this album, and showcases Duck Baker’s confident dexterity on the fretboard. While the duets and other configurations on this album put out a lot of sound, the most expressive output is found when the guitarist plays his own compositions, unaccompanied. The harp-like introduction of “Immaculate Conception Rag” sets up what is one of the high points in this collection. When he quickly seats the tumbling set of arpeggios over a common time alternating bass, the finely syncopated song really takes off, becoming a rollicking new-old-stock rag.
With The King of Bongo Bong, Duck Baker accomplishes something not every “period musician” is capable of: he presents music from another time and place, seemingly out of context, but never allows the music to become a pedantic exercise or history lesson. The music on this album is always musical. His arrangements don’t feel forced to make room for the berth of styles he applies to the instrument, but are unified by his sensitivty to the nuances of each. Duck would continue fusing guitar styles throughout his career, and this early set of music presents a multifaceted guitar master gaining momentum.