NYC Jazz Record – March 2019
Wall of Flowers, Mike Baggetta/Mike Watt/Jim Keltner (Big Ego Records, 2019)
CD review by John Pietaro
When was the last time artfully improvisational music laced with irony and post-punk bite felt so good? Maybe 1988, possibly never. Guitarist Mike Baggetta has a uniquely stark sound, one that revels in surf and spy as much as Trane and Dolphy, the avant garde as meaningfully as lamentations. For Wall of Flowers he calls on Mike Watt, best known for iconic ‘80s band the Minutemen, but whose stalking, primal basslines have also propelled Firehose, Sonic Youth, Dos, proto-punk quartet the Stooges and celebrated guitarist Nels Cline. And in a choice that demonstrates Baggetta’s more “straight” side, legendary session musician Jim Keltner completes the trio. The drummer’s performances on stage or record extend from John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen, Delaney & Bonnie, George Harrison and Harry Nilsson to Carly Simon, Barbra Streisand, bassist Jack Bruce, guitar heroes Richard Thompson and Neil Young and a wealth of others. This inside/outside boundary constructs a fantasy foray into generations of sounds.
“Hospital Song” opens, following an atmospheric intro, and quickly establishes the tenor of the collection. Compelling instrumental rock raises the specter of the early ‘60s and its edgy resurgence a generation later, and Baggetta’s overdubbed guitar lines are an immediate, delicious draw. This flailing nostalgia begat two versions of “Blue Velvet”, the genteel 1950s standard made famous by Bobby Vinton. Its delightfully unsettling presence here, particularly in the duet version with Keltner, recalls the corruption of innocence central to David Lynch’s film. But Wall of Flowers is about much more than memories, cherished and/or distorted. Baggetta sings and moans on his ax, pulling out pensive, torn phrases enlivened by repetitions, dark arpeggios and a twang bar thicket. It becomes clear why Nels Cline dubbed Baggetta a “guitar poet”.
Album highlights include “Dirty Smell of Dying”, a free music rave-up that brings out the best in all three musicians. Here, Keltner draws on the jazz chops that makes his rock drumming so masterful, a perfect antagonist for the leader’s pained, searching improvisation. However, it is the title cut that illuminates the magic of Baggetta’s emotive, driving, long tones, Watt’s mean, metallic pulsations and Keltner’s shimmering, throbbing commentary. In a field of numerous celebrated contenders, this Mike Baggetta ensemble is already the guitar trio of the year.
Credits: Mike Baggetta: guitars, Mike Watt: bass, Jim Keltner: drums
“Hospital Song” (intro)/ “Hospital Song”/”Blue Velvet” (solo)/”I am Not a Data Point”/”Of Breads and Rivers”/”Dirty Smell of Dying”/”Blue Velvet” (duo)/”Wall of Flowers”