Ken Maiuri’s Clubland: Guitarist Mike Baggetta records and debuts a new album

  • Bassist Mike Watt, left, drummer Jim Keltner and guitarist Mike Baggetta worked together on Baggetta’s new album, “Wall of Flowers.” Submitted photo

  • Agawam native and guitarist Mike Baggetta will play cuts from his new album with his trio at the Iron Horse March 27. Photo by Aaron Wolf

Published: 3/13/2019 4:37:43 PM

Guitar man Mike Baggetta takes the stage with bassist Mike Watt (Minutemen, fIREHOSE) and drummer Stephen Hodges (Mavis Staples, Tom Waits, David Lynch) to play their unclassifiable “post-genre-improv-jazz-rock” at the Iron Horse on Wednesday, March 27, at 7 p.m.

Baggetta, born and raised in Agawam but now living in Knoxville, Tennessee, has built up an impressive body of recorded work over the past 15 years, including four albums on the quality Fresh Sound New Talent label based in Spain (responsible for introducing the world to The Bad Plus, Robert Glasper, Ambrose Akinmusire and other greats).

“Wall of Flowers” is Baggetta’s latest album, out tomorrow on his Bandcamp page, and it finds the guitarist collaborating with two masters, bassist Watt and drummer Jim Keltner (Ry Cooder, George Harrison, Bob Dylan and many, many others), who had never played together before the recording session. 

The busy guitarist made time for an interview earlier this week — he’d just landed in Los Angeles for tour rehearsals — and explained how the one-time supergroup came together.

“My friend Chris Schlarb, who runs BIG EGO Studios and Records out of Long Beach, CA, asked if I'd like to do an album for his label. I said absolutely, but I want to do it with Watt and Keltner. I was sort of half-joking at the time, thinking there was no way this would ever happen, but over the next few years we went from less joking about it to actually doing it. Chris did a lot to align the stars for this session and it absolutely wouldn't have happened without him.”

The eight-tune album hits an early high with “Hospital Song,” which lifts and falls through dreamy chord changes while the rhythm section keeps galloping tirelessly. There’s a melancholy in Baggetta’s melody and shifting colors, but combined with that relentless drive, the piece feels like it’s on a brave journey with a long, long highway ahead.

In the lengthy fade-out, the song shrinks and dissipates into the dust on the horizon, still going, never turning back.

The album-ending title track swaggers with Keltner’s heavy clomping beat and loose hi-hats rattling, Baggetta’s woozy chords and a fuzzy buzzing-bee solo, and Watt keeping the sonic world balanced with strong and soulful melodic lines.

The other two full-band tracks — “Dirty Smell of Dying” and “I Am Not a Data Point” — head to the outer limits, with looser frameworks and wilder playing, shaped into compositions from hours of free improvisation.

“The ease with which we all dealt with unknown music in that moment was really reassuring,” Baggetta said. “I always think that if you're working with great musicians, like truly great musicians, things will always work out through listening and trust. A lot of proof was made towards my theory with these two.”

He said he felt Watt and Keltner both share at least one important musical quality — “the ability to commit to a groove, playing it deeper than anyone else I could think of, but also allowing it to evolve and become a very living, organic thing. It's not so much about playing the same thing the same way every time, but more like playing AT the same thing in different ways, allowing it to subtly change. That was the main thing I was interested in getting at.”

Keltner doesn’t travel anymore, so Stephen Hodges is playing drums on the ten-date March tour, which thrills Baggetta. Watt’s 1997 rock opera “Contemplating the Engine Room” featured Hodges, and Baggetta said that record was a “total turning point” for him musically.

“That work was the first time I really understood two important things in music that influence me to this day,” he said. “First, how intensely personal one could make their music, and secondly, genre-wise, that work is all over the map! And I love that about it so much.”

It’s a “totally cohesive work that spans many genres with the same band,” Baggetta added. “That really made a few things click for me about, like, how do I reconcile my music into a complete and honest language with the fact that I like jazz, and punk, and country, and modern classical, etc., and not feel like I have to exclude anything.”

Baggetta, Watt and Hodges will include a few songs from that Watt rock opera in their set, in addition to the “Wall of Flowers” tracks and other compositions/improvisations. 

And the old Agawam kid is happy to be doing the gig at the Iron Horse, which he said was “the venue I used to sit outside of when I was in high school to hear the bands that I was too broke to get in and hear!”

Limited edition vinyl copies of “Wall of Flowers” will be available at the Iron Horse show, as well as through Baggetta’s Bandcamp page, where the digital version of the album is available for pre-order now.

Ken Maiuri can be reached at clublandcolumn@gmail.com.




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