STEVE BAKER — TONIC — Review by Joshua Lee, Presto Music — July 8, 2022
Even if you’ve not heard Steve Baker’s name before, you might well have heard his music. Despite today’s new release Tonic being his first full-length studio album, Baker has already made a name for himself with a long career as a media composer for television and radio. With over three decades of writing for music libraries, he’s long-honed his skills as a multi-instrumentalist, orchestrator and producer – all completely self-taught, too. Amongst his long list of clients, some of Baker’s more specific contributions include the soundtrack to BBC’s ‘Escape to the Country’, as well as segments from the soundtrack to 2001 film ‘Donnie Darko’. Although, whether you’re writing for music libraries or composing for television, naturally one always has to take some creative and artistic liberties to get the job done – appeasing both your client and your artistic expression don’t always go hand-in-hand. It’s for this very reason that the idea of Tonic came about, with Baker wanting to throw these constraints off and buckle down for what he describes as some “serious composing”.
For his solo artist debut, Steve Baker has spared no expense in getting some of the finest contemporary British jazz performers into the studio with him; the full in-studio line-up consists of fifteen musicians, as well as the Hungarian Studio Orchestra, providing string performances on multiple tracks. Of particular note in Baker’s core band is the inclusion of Mark Lockheart, whose studio album Dreamers my colleague Matt gave a glowing review earlier this year, providing both saxophone and bass clarinet on Tonic, as well as trumpeter Laura Jurd of UK jazz darlings Dinosaur, and guitarist John Parricelli, one of the founding members of ‘80s big band revival group Loose Tubes.
Baker’s time composing for a wide variety of contexts has lent his music a certain genre-crossing quality, and while these extra bits and pieces take the form of the album’s more left-field turns, the real backbone of Tonic is its ostensibly jazz-influenced sound. Although Baker doesn’t really utilise the traditional jazz structure on this record, his original compositions are full of cinematic moments and densely-arranged instrumental goodness. The album starts humbly with the mostly solo piano piece ‘False Relation (Part 1)’, with Baker entertaining what at first seem like seemingly innocuous melodies that are then peppered with little off-kilter turns, before the track ends with a stack of textural sax from Lockheart and reverberated vocals. Some of the studio orchestra’s finest moments come in on ‘Enquire Within’ and ‘The Garden’, the latter of which showcases Baker as a composer with a great sense for dynamics and progression; a real songwriting highlight of the record, for sure, complemented almost effortlessly by the lush string accompaniment.
‘Riley’ proves to be a more upbeat number yet with equally well thought-out instrumentation, with dynamic passages between making room for more ambient space, while Baker’s left-hand-axeman Parricelli chimes in with some smooth bluesy soloing. Meanwhile it’s Lockheart who takes the lead towards the end of ‘Fields Beneath’ against the warm brass – and what I think is a kalimba – guiding the ensemble through the space. Elsewhere the rhythmically-driven ‘Undo History (Part 2)’ draws on some European jazz flavours, fusing cello, various woodwinds and accordions with a more rock-style backbeat with a ton of dynamic variety; subtle electronic percussion and textures come into play on the intro to ‘Enquire Within’ and ‘Fields Beneath’. It’s not all just ambient washy soundscapes though; ‘Rightly Said’ has quite an earwormy melody which acts as an interesting contrast against the slightly more discordant piano section in between, while the syncopated rhythms on closing track ‘Belinda’ also bring a satisfying balance of groove and melody.
Playing to his advantages as a well-connected industry vet, the arrangements Baker manages to pull off on Tonic are only complemented further by the clear production and serve the pieces beautifully. Given his somewhat advantageous position, Steve Baker’s studio debut isn’t some fresh-faced artist trying to find their way – it’s the work of an experienced artist who’s had more than enough time to refine his sound. That being said, with Tonic marking his first full-length personal work, it still comes with all the wonder of someone exploring their musical world for the first time.