Yet the Gullah influence in Baxter's musical expressions wasn't overt until the recent development of Ranky Tanky, a collective quintet, whose name translates loosely as "work it," or "get funky." The group's selftitled debut recording mines songs drawn from Gullah tradition - earnest spirituals, ecstatic shouts and playful tunes associated with children's games - in, as Baxter says, "an attempt to champion this legacy within a contemporary framework."
Ranky Tanky features singer Quiana Parler, whose power, dexterity and expressiveness convey the breadth and strength of the material's emotional content. The group reunites Baxter with trumpeter Charlton Singleton, bassist Kevin Hamilton - both fellow Charleston natives who share Gullah roots - and guitarist/singer Clay Ross. All four instrumentalists first played together nearly 20 years ago. Ross, who grew up in South Carolina and now lives in New York City, recalls weekly jam sessions at Clara's, a Charleston coffeeshop, when he was a teenaged college student. Baxter, Singleton and Hamilton were already established players, deeply invested in a then-nascent neo-traditional jazz renaissance. "They could blow you away with a mixed-meter arrangement of Autumn Leaves,'" Ross says. "Still, what really got me was when they'd play a spiritual like 'Wade in the Water.' Then their common upbringing would shine through. I didn't know what Gullah tradition really was, but I felt something profound and special. As the years passed, I grew more interested in it."
It was Ross's idea to create a Gullah focused project, which at first seemed nothing more than a novelty to Baxter and the others. "I was the white guy researching all this the way an academic might - listening to Alan Lomax field recordings, digging up anything I could find on [singer] Bessie Jones," he says. "This is their real lives." The more the group dug in, the more Baxter realized what an open door the project was, both to revisit his past and to create anew. "There really is no popular secular expression of this indigenous culture the way there is a second-line parade in New Orleans," Baxter says. "And when you begin to mess around with the songs, you're moved to improvise in the way we did in church." The unrestrained rolling beats Baxter plays beneath Parler's vocal on "Been in the Storm," are, he says, much in the manner he'd "line a hymn" decades ago during a church service in response to each spoken or sung line.
Gullah tradition invites creativity, Ross says, but not without limits. When he brought the band his arrangement of "That's Alright," the CD's opening track, "They all laughed at the way I'd phrased the melody," he says. "It just didn't sound Gullah, which is culture and a language that is largely defined by phrasing."
As the recording moves from the playful joy of its title track (derived from a child's game) to the somber grace of "0 Death" (a plea to be "spared for another year"), it sounds loose-limbed and free, funky in an unforced way. This group isn't bound to any one particular musical genre, and it is grounded instead by an enigmatic, unshakeable and unspoiled tradition that's long been hidden in plain sight. "We're taking liberties with Gullah tradition here, and having a good time," Baxter says. "But an old person from my church would recognize it right away. Plus, my mom is cool with it. So we must be doing something right."