As the only musician present for all 12 of Duos Vol. 1’s tracks, you’d think Tedd Baker would be the one setting the terms—and you’d be wrong. The tenor saxophonist must refit his approach to all eight of his partners. Three drummers, two guitarists, a pianist, a bassist, and a vocalist would already require significant change-ups; considering that each drummer and each guitarist has his own style as well, it’s remarkable the degree to which Baker, on his own (quite agreeable) album, is on someone else’s turf.
Playing with guitarist Paul Pieper, for example, isn’t like playing with John Lee. Pieper’s is a light touch, and he puts a gentle bossanova lilt on his comping of Bill Evans’s “Turn Out the Stars.” Baker has a commanding soundD, his sturdy tone and hearty accents are from the Coleman Hawkins–Sonny Rollins school, but he molds them to the guitarist’s dulcet paces. Lee, on the other hand, doesn’t do “subtle accompanist.” Hence the bluesy “Brand New Angel” is as much about Lee’s figures, full of bent notes and choppy internal rhythms—not only in his solo but in his fills of Baker’s pauses. On “Again and Again,” Baker and Lee (now using wah-wah and reverb) are closer to counterpoint than leader-and-accompanist; they even double on the head.
At times, Baker even readjusts for the same partner. “Eronel” and “Ask Me Now” are both Monk compositions, both with bassist Kris Funn, yet Baker doesn’t even wield the same horn for both. “Ask Me Now” is on soprano sax, made for longer notes and less aggression; he’s a naturally aggressive player, but here his punchy accents and chromatic runs float almost in spite of themselves over a sly staccato groove from Funn. Back to his usual tenor on “Eronel,” Baker swings more self-consciously than anywhere else, hammering the beats and establishing a gait to match, even push, Funn’s walk.
Still, Baker remains the sole constant, and thus forges links. The opening “Soul Eyes” (with propulsive drummer Alejandro Lucini) couldn’t be more different from the following ballad, “Autumn in New York” (with vocalist Sharon Clark, brandishing her best Sarah Vaughan chops). But Baker’s intro on the second tune offers the same sense of construction and melodic development as his improv lines on the first. (The architectural style appears throughout, of course, but the throughline is never again so blatant.)
There’s also an ongoing flirtation with Monk: Along with the Funn tracks, Baker does “Trinkle Tinkle” with sparkling pianist Richard Doron Johnson, whose stride playing is something to behold. Perhaps most prominent, though, is the fact that nearly half of Duos pairs Baker with drummers. He works twice with Lucini, twice with Quincy Phillips, and once with outright pugilist Todd Harrison; their “Joshua” is a sonic fireworks display. Baker again adapts himself in each instance—a soft-shoe with Phillips on “Isfahan,” an adrenalized samba with Lucini on “Chega De Saudade/No More Blues”—but the very fact of so much drumming tells one how comfortable Baker feels in an energized, percussive context. Perhaps he is on his turf.