Mike Baggetta: Genre-Blurring Guitar Hero

The multi-faceted guitarist collaborates with punk bassist Mike Watt and session drummer Jim Keltner on Wall of Flowers

Mike Baggetta (photo: Bill Foster)
Mike Baggetta (photo: Bill Foster)

Mike Baggetta has been on a high. The multifaceted guitarist recently completed a whirlwind 10-day tour in support of Wall of Flowers (Big Ego), his out-there album with punk bassist Mike Watt and legendary session drummer Jim Keltner. He capped off the cross-country jaunt at the New York club Coney Island Baby by joining forces with fellow guitarist Ava Mendoza and ripping through an earth-scorching cover of the Stooges’ “Funhouse.”              

But for Baggetta, the chance to perform live versions of songs from Watt’s punk-rock opera, 1997’s Contemplating the Engine Room, has been even more monumental. That sprawling opus, a deeply autobiographical song cycle connecting Watt’s time in ’80s punk trio the Minutemen to his father’s life in the Navy, has had a lasting effect on the guitarist.

Engine Room was something really special to me,” Baggetta says. “I’d never really gotten the idea of being able to express human emotions through music. If you read the libretto on that album, it’s a heavy work about incredibly personal circumstances. I was in awe of how he had put his heart on his sleeve for the world to hear. I feel like at that moment I understood that you can really express yourself through music like this.”

Before that revelation, Baggetta took inspiration from a broad spectrum of players. As a student at Rutgers, he’d gleaned valuable insights from his teachers, Vic Juris and the late Ted Dunbar of the Tony Williams Lifetime. Meanwhile, records like Jeff Beck’s Wired, Miles’ In a Silent Way, Coltrane’s Impressions, and David Torn’s What Means Solid, Traveller? proved to be life-changers.

Now after four jazz-centric albums as leader for the Barcelona-based Fresh Sound New Talent label, the Knoxville-based Baggetta, 39, has found himself at the forefront of an army of guitar innovators who never adhere to one particular stylistic blueprint. “The musical atmosphere in 2019 is so much more accepting of this kind of stuff, and that road has been paved, especially guitar-wise,” he says, referencing Torn, Marc Ribot, Nels Cline, Jeff Parker, and Ben Monder. “I don’t want to use ‘jazz guitarist,’ but there’s all these experimentally-minded, exploratory electric guitarists who’ve broken down this door in rock music but who also do all these other types of music and people get into it.”

Wall of Flowers is a largely improvised set that conveys the organic feel of seasoned musicians who’ve been playing together for years. But the fact is that the trio had never met—let alone stepped into a studio together—prior to recording in June of 2017. Producer Chris Schlarb took the reinsin bringing the group together, making random callsto assemble the Watt-Keltner rhythm section.

“I thought it would be fun to hear them together,” Baggetta says of his bandmates. “They both have this ability to not only play grooves in the deepest imaginable way for as long as they need to play them, but there’s a sort of evolution in the way that they play them. I was actually surprised to find out that no one had ever thought to put them together. The more people you talk to, you hear, ‘Oh, they are from these totally distant musical worlds.’ But it just never seemed that distant to me.”

With Watt and Keltner holding down the back end with deep trancelike grooves, Baggetta was given the freedom to go off. The vibe on Wall of Flowers is spaced-out and trippy, thanks to his effects-loaded, whammy bar-driven licks. Tunes like “I Am Not a Data Point,” “Dirty Smell of Dying,” and “Of Bread and Rivers” are epically warped; “Hospital Song (Intro)” and the two versions of “Blue Velvet” are ghostly, gritty, and abstract.

Although Baggetta has been a fixture in the avant-jazz landscape for years—playing with the likes of trumpeter Kris Tiner, bassist Jerome Harris, drummer Billy Mintz, and saxophonist Jason Rigby—Wall of Flowers is markedly unlike anything he’s done before. But he doesn’t think of the album as a reinvention.

“I think it’s just where it is right now for me,” he says. “There was never an intent, like, ‘Okay, I’ve got to change my thing, I’ve got to change my environment, genre, relationship or whatever.’ I could never have those thoughts.”