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Sat 24th June at 9:00pm
An Evening With Ginger Baker
Why? by Ginger Baker’s Jazz Confusion, is the legendary drummer’s first release as a leader since he and his Denver Quintet to Octet recorded their critically acclaimed Coward Of The County for Atlantic back in September of 1998, and like that historic session, Why? showcases the drummer’s mastery of the kind of polyrhythmic vocabulary which connects the modern jazz of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, with the blues and parade rhythms of Congo Square in old New Orleans and the talking drums of West Africa.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine, writing in the All Music Guide, characterized this recital as “…startlingly fresh. Using hard bop as a foundation, they’re unafraid to venture into challenging territory…not only are the compositions challenging, they’re delivered with ease by the group, which are remarkably empathetic and graceful. In fact, it’s a testimony to Baker’s skills as a leader that he never dominates, preferring to let all the parts weave together to create a full, rich sound.”
Much the same can be said of the stripped down, soulful quartet he fronts on Why? And in a sense, from the celebratory swing of Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas” to the ritual dance of the traditional African song “Aiko Biaye,” and a number of original compositions by the drummer himself, the music on Why? finds Ginger Baker having come full circle—back to the uncompromising jazz music which inspired him to become a drummer in the first place.
“I was never a rock drummer, for God’s sake,” Ginger snarls with considerable exasperation. “Writers like to lump everything into these bloody little bags so they can label it. It’s just plain stupid. Music transcends all of these ridiculous categories. To this day, people characterize Cream as a rock and roll band. Bollocks!
“Yes, we played songs and sold a lot of records, but in concert we mainly played improvised music; Jack Bruce and I cut our teeth on modern jazz in the early ‘60s, and Eric was a master blues player. Because of our musical roots, the first time we had a play at my crib in 1966, the connection was magical and instantaneous. Then in 2005, when we got together to rehearse for four nights at the Royal Albert Hall, when we hadn’t performed in public since 1968, it was like we’d just been off on holiday for a few weeks. The chemistry was still there.
“I began playing with Dixieland bands in the late 1950s, and those musicians made it a point to insist that I listen to the music of the great New Orleans drummer Baby Dodds, which was like the best thing that ever happened to me. At about that same time, I heard the great drummer Max Roach performing with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and Charlie Mingus on that famous Jazz at Massey Hall recording, and that was completely inspiring—Max was a complete musician, and he showed how the drummer didn’t have to take a back seat to anyone.
“Then one evening, I was playing a gig the Flamingo All-Nighter, and the saxophonist Tubby Hayes heard me and went to tell Phil Seamen that he had to hear this drummer. Well, when I got off stage, there was Phil Seamen to greet me. I was just in awe of Phil—he was the king of British jazz drummers—just a master player. He took me back to his flat, and began playing all of these polyrhythmic African percussion records for me. ‘Okay, where’s the beat?’ And straightaway I got it—which shocked the hell out of him. ‘You’re the only one who’s ever understood how this music goes.”
Ultimately, boundaries on the London scene began to break down as work playing modern jazz became harder to come by, and when drummer Charlie Watts stepped aside to give Ginger the drum chair in the Alexis Korner band (Ginger returned the favor, hooking Charlie up with Brian Jones in what became a formative version of the Rolling Stones), it marked Ginger’s entrée into the emerging British blues/R&B scene, culminating in the drummer’s musical breakout as a member of the Graham Bond Organization, featuring the latter’s Hammond B-3 organ and Dick Heckstall-Smith’s tenor saxophone—while inaugurating a tempestuous, combustible creative relationship with bassist Jack Bruce, which somehow has endured for close to fifty years.
The Graham Bond Organization was an enormously popular and influential band on the British music scene, and for all intents and purposes, Ginger was the group’s leader. At the point where things had run their course, the drummer was determined to start a band of his own—the idea being to feature the cream of British musicians—reaching out first to guitarist Eric Clapton, late of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and then at Clapton’s behest, to bassist Jack Bruce, with whom Baker had famously feuded in the Bond Organization.
For the better part of two years, Cream was the most popular touring band on the popular music scene, paving the way for the birth of progressive rock and heavy metal bands such as Led Zeppelin on one hand (an honor for which Ginger denies paternity), and the emerging jazz-rock fusion movement of bands such as guitarist John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra on the other (McLaughlin had collaborated with Baker and Bruce in an early edition of the Graham Bond Organization). Then, when Cream burnt out, Ginger went on to collaborate with Clapton and Stevie Winwood, late of Traffic, in the short-lived but influential Blind Faith, which like Cream, operated on the cusp of several musical genres.
From the ashes of Blind Faith, Ginger then formed an ambitious big band, Ginger Baker’s Air Force, which reflected his passion for jazz, blues, R&B and African music, and allowed him to feature beloved mentor Phil Seamen in a two-drummer, multi-percussion line-up (and subsequently to engage in a memorable encounter with another rhythmic inspiration, John Coltrane’s innovative drummer, Elvin Jones, which was recorded, but never released by Ginger’s label). And in another memorable encounter at the 1972 Munich Olympics, Ginger engaged in a passionate duet with the legendary jazz drummer, Art Blakey.
“It meant the world to me to be accepted not only as a jazz drummer, but as a peer by my musical fathers and mentors, Phil Seamen, Elvin Jones and Art Blakey, and two decades later by Max Roach and Tony Williams when we collaborated in that Percussion Summit in Verona, Italy. I particularly remember playing another festival back in the 1970s, when Philly Joe Jones sought me out after the gig,” Ginger recalls, his voice betraying his emotions. “Philly told me, ‘When you were soloing, it was like you were telling a story up there.’ I was so moved by the generosity of that gesture, because he didn’t have to reach out or say a damn thing to me; I mean, who was I—he was Philly Joe Jones, a jazz legend.”
What followed in the 1970s was a period of creative outreach and ambition, which started off with such great promise, before going off the rails. Ginger followed up on his creative collaboration with Afrobeat firebrand Fela Ransome-Kuti and his drummer Tony Allen, by moving to Nigeria where he entertained his twin passions for African music and polo—culminating in the drummer making a major financial investment in a world class recording studio in the capitol city of Lagos. Long story short? Ginger ran askance of power brokers from a major international music corporation—who viewing his studio as a direct challenge to their control of the local music scene, set out to destroy him. Meanwhile, things had become very tense, very tense indeed between Fela and those political powers with whom he was feuding, and as things played out, Ginger was forced to beat a hasty exit out of town. Why? Don’t ask.
By the decade’s conclusion, having lost a small fortune in Lagos, Ginger entertained extended stints with the Baker-Gurvitz Army and a much shorter one with the band Hawkwind in a bid to replenish his resources, but in the end, a looming encounter with the tax man, and his desire to put his drug dependency behind him once and for all, led the drummer to relocate to a primitive stone house in the Italian province of Tuscany, where he tended an olive farm and played the odd gig.
By mid-decade, bassist-producer Bill Laswell sought him out, and featured Ginger’s drumming on an all-star recording session with ex-Sex Pistols front man Johnny Lydon, while building provocative world musical arrangements around him with the likes of Shakti-violinist L. Shankar, Funkadelic keyboard icon Bernie Worrell and bass virtuoso Jonas Hellborg on a pair of well-received instrumental albums, Horses And Trees and Middle Passage, while Ginger went on to collaborate with Hellborg on the free form trio improvisations of 1990’s Unseen Rain.
By this time, Ginger had relocated to the horse country north of Los Angeles, collaborating on an excellent set of songs and instrumental jams with the trio Masters of Reality—Sunrise on the Suffer Bus. When, inevitably, that band proved a little too hip for the room, a one-off gig with Ornette Coleman’s renowned bassist Charlie Haden and blues guitarist Shuggie Otis, led someone to finally ask Ginger to make a recording of the kind of modern jazz instrumentals which had inspired him to become a musician in the first place—a mere thirty-five years after he began his professional career.
Resulting in the acclaimed 1994 session, Going Back Home (Atlantic), a collaboration between Ginger, bassist Haden and guitar innovator Bill Frisell at Ocean Way Studios in Hollywood.
“That recording session was completely spontaneous,” Ginger explains. “We all showed up with some tunes, but otherwise, having never played together, it was all completely improvised—pure jazz in the best sense of that word. I figured it would either be a total disaster or something quite brilliant. It turned out to be a very stimulating, enjoyable session; the album sold well, got great reviews, and led to a lot more creative opportunities to play jazz. Charlie, Bill and I got to play a very nice festival gig in Frankfurt, Germany the following year, and off of that Max Roach reached out to me to play with him, Tony Williams and the M’Boom Re: Percussion Ensemble at the famous Coliseum in Verona, Italy—where they stage all of the operas—on the same bill as Keith Jarrett’s trio with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette. That was a wonderful experience, and it was so gratifying to spend time with Max and Tony, who were enormous influences on my music. We were scheduled to document that project at a recording studio the first week of March, 1997, in New York, but a week before the session, Tony suddenly passed away, which was a great personal loss for me, and for the music.”
Having relocated to Denver, Colorado, Ginger translated his passion for polo and jazz, into a series of events in which a polo match was followed by a concert event showcasing perhaps the best band Ginger ever had, including tenor saxophonist Fred Hess and trumpeter Ron Miles, who as Ginger’s musical director, was lovingly showcased on five of the seven tunes when Coward Of The County was released in 1999, culminating in a triumphant week-long engagement at New York City’s Iridium. “We really blew them away on that gig,” Ginger recalls proudly. “And when Max [Roach] came by to lend his support, well, that was quite special.”
Ironically, just at the point Ginger had finally geared up a world-class jazz band of his own, the train went off the rails again. Why? Don’t ask. Ginger ended up in a dispute with the immigration people over the status of a groom he had hired to look after his horses, and before you know it, his own visa in question, Ginger felt compelled to leave the United States, pulling up stakes and relocating to South Africa. It was while he was living in South Africa that he undertook a triumphant set of reunion concerts with Cream, as documented in the CDs and DVDs culled from four nights in the spring of 2005 at London’s Royal Albert Hall, leading to three sold-out nights later that fall at New York’s City’s Madison Square Garden.
In the decade to come, time finally caught up with a drummer who had mastered time itself so convincingly, in the form of crippling arthritis and debilitating emphysema. Around the time Jay Bulger’s acclaimed documentary, Beware Mister Baker, began making the rounds, Ginger’s situation in South Africa became untenable. Why? Don’t ask. Relocating back to England, the drummer formed Ginger Baker’s Jazz Confusion in 2012, which based on the evidence of their acclaimed release on the Motema label, Why?, is anything but muddled, teaming the drummer with the jazz/funk tenor saxophone master Pee Wee Ellis (of James Brown and Van Morrison renown), bass virtuoso Alec Dankworth (son of jazz singer Cleo Laine and British big band leader and alto player, Johnny Dankworth), and the Ghanian percussionist Abass Dodoo.
Referencing as it does Ginger’s abiding love for modern jazz, blues and African rhythms, Why? offers a compelling portrait of a master drummer in the autumn of his years—the wisdom of his artistry superseding any limitations that age and illness may have imposed on him. And over the course of a series of live gigs at clubs and festivals in Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States, audiences have responded enthusiastically to Ginger Baker’s spiritual resolve and tenacity as he brings all of his insights and experience to bear on the jazz music he loves so deeply.
“I sometimes wonder if God is not keeping me alive and in constant pain to punish me for my wicked ways,” Ginger snorts defiantly, though his mood gradually softens by degrees. “You see, the thing is, while I no longer have the endurance or the velocity I could bring to bear on the music in my prime, in every other way I’m actually playing better than I ever have. Alec and Abass and Pee Wee are such marvelous players, and so sensitive to the ensemble sound, that because we don’t have a chordal instrument, I have to make every stroke I play mean that much more. And what’s really rewarding, is that no matter how awful I may feel, once I sit down behind the drum kit and begin to perform with my band-mates, all of that pain is swept away by the joy I feel in playing the drums once more.”
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