David Baker: 1945–2004

Noted jazz recording engineer David Baker died unexpectedly on July 14 in Rochester, NY.

It has become commonplace in obituaries to call almost any prominent person "legendary," but David Baker truly earned the sobriquet. He participated in more than 2000 recordings, including many now considered classics for both sound and content.

Baker was all but born to the trade, according to Eugene Chadborne's biography at allmusic.com. His grandfather was a salesman for Columbia Records, and his father installed hi-fi systems professionally in Atlanta. As a youth, David Baker began making amateur recordings, and he coordinated the sound reinforcement for the Atlanta Arts Festival while still a teenager. In 1965, the 20-year-old Baker began making field recordings of events associated with the civil rights movement, such as voter registration drives and meetings in churches. These recordings are an essential part of the Movement Soul release, an audio history of the civil rights struggle issued by the Library of Congress.

Mr. Baker formally studied recording science at Toronto's Royal Conservatory of Music and New York's Institute of Audio Research. In the late 1960s, he began working with Vanguard Records and Apostolic Studios in New York City. There, he encountered and recorded such boundary-pushing artists as the Mothers of Invention, the Fugs, and Larry Coryell. Mr. Baker also served as assistant engineer on the seminal rock recordings Every Good Boy Deserves Favor by the Moody Blues and In the Land of Grey and Pink by Caravan.

However, it was the "loft jazz" movement of the 1970s that David Baker was most closely identified with. With his recordings of the emerging avant-garde scene of the '70s, Mr. Baker refined his abilities to record live music events. Many listeners considered him unrivaled at capturing the sound of acoustic instruments in a live setting—and his vast catalog of live recordings makes an unassailable argument for this viewpoint.

Mr. Baker became Vanguard's chief engineer in 1975 and remastered that label's entire catalog for compact disc. An incomplete list of the other labels he was associated with includes ECM, Enja, Blue Note, Atlantic, Verve, Black Saint, Soul Note, and, most recently, Amulet.

Some engineers seem to operate like "hired guns," seldom working for the same musician twice. David Baker tended to work with the same musicians time and time again—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that musicians, having once worked with Mr. Baker, tended to trust him with project after project.

If there is a common thread in his recordings—other than extremely natural sound—it would have to be a sense of hushed attention: there is an active sense of listening that typifies his work. A glance at his recordings contained in my collection, for example, reveals a phenomenal number of late-night favorites: Chico Hamilton: Still Sensitive, Paul Bley and Gary Peacock: Partners, Shirley Horn: Here's To Life, Astor Piazzolla: Rough Dancer and the Cyclical Night, Richie Beirach Trio: Trust, Anthony Davis: Hidden Voices, and, of course, pretty much anything by Medeski, Martin & Wood.

Mr. Baker's death was unexpected, and as of press time, there have been few details. Many of us who attended HE2004 had a chance to speak with him, and he was full of energy and musical enthusiasm about his recent work at Chad Kassem's Analogue Productions at Blue Heaven Studios, where he recorded the first Blues Masters at the Crossroads concert, among other projects. The following message has been posted at the Avatar Studios website:
"We are deeply saddened to have to report that the great recording engineer David Baker has passed away. He died peacefully in his sleep after finishing a session in Rochester, New York on July 14, 2004. He was 58. Mr. Baker is survived by his wife, Kyoko Baker. A private family funeral will be held in Atlanta on July 24.

"Memorial Service Details
"Date: Monday, August 16
Time: From Noon until 10 PM
Location: Avatar Studios (441 West 53rd Street, between Ninth & Tenth)
Room: Studio A

"A semi-formal service with family members will be held for about an hour starting at Noon. The studio will be open until 10 PM for people to stop by and pay their respects. We are expecting a few musicians to pay musical tribute to Mr. Baker. If you are interested in performing, please contact Kirk Imamura at Avatar Studios in advance. The performances will be recorded a la Baker-style and will be given to family members."