LIVE: Ginger Baker’s Jazz Confusion @ The Egg, 6/16/15
Review by Brett Williams
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Once, in days of yore, Peter Edward “Ginger” Baker was the tall, gaunt, fire–maned maniac who provided the rhythmic backbone to Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton in Cream. His style, brewed of equal parts feverish aggression and jazz–oriented precision, earned him a reputation as a drummer that has only ever been exceeded, arguably, by his reputation for drug use on a Keith Richards kind of scale, and for his legendarily nuclear blow-ups with band-mate Jack Bruce.
That was Ginger Baker then.
Ginger Baker now is a haggard, bespectacled septuagenarian. His distinctive red hair is a (mostly) tame shock of white. He has a degenerative spinal condition. He has COPD from a decade’s long, unrepentant smoking habit. He admits to being exhausted and in pain after every performance. My companion for the show, a drummer and ER nurse, spent most of the second set alternately admiring Ginger’s flam technique, and reviewing CPR in his head, just in case Mr. Baker was stricken mid-song (and it seemed a close-run thing whenever he stood up).
Yet two things about Ginger Baker remain undiminished. First – although it was never really on display Tuesday night – he remains, by nearly all accounts, a grumpy, grumpy man (he did tell us to shut up once, for applauding too much). Second – and this is the important one – he can still drum.
God, can he drum.
Every once in a while, especially during the first song or two, I would delude myself into thinking that maybe he’d lost a step; maybe those misplaced rimshots or that dropped stick were evidence that the old man should pack up his Zildjians and wobble off into the sunset. Then he’d prove me wrong with a thunderous, circular fill on his low-tuned toms that most drummers could only visualize in an abstract sense. His work on the rivet ride and hi-hat (to which science ought to look as an example of a perpetual motion machine) was likewise impeccable.
At The Egg’s tiny Swyer Theatre, Baker led his band Jazz Confusion, comprised of veteran saxophonist (and alum of both James Brown and Van Morrison’s bands) Pee Wee Ellis, bass player Alec Dankworth (whom Baker pointedly described as “my favorite bass player”) and Ghanan percussionist Abbas Dodoo. Such a line-up dictated that his was never going to be a rock show. And really, that’s in keeping with the idiom Ginger has always tried, half-heartedly, to cultivate. From his earliest days, he has always considered himself to be above other legendary rock drummers like Moon and Bonham (as well as most of the rest of humanity), because he, according to Ginger Baker, is really a jazz drummer.
And you know what? He’s right. Even as a physically deteriorating 75-year-old (whom my companion felt should’ve spent the evening in a hospital bed, rather than a drum chair), his technique, his instincts and his remarkable polyrhythmic abilities, when freed from the cacophony of a rock show, were more than at home on jazz standards like Wayne Shorter’s classic “Footprints.” “12+ More Blues” and “Cyril Davis” touched on the improvisatory blues that made Baker famous in the first place, albeit much more quietly. The entire quartet (along with the audience) seemed to relish the odd syncopations to be found in the 9/8 shuffle of “Ginger Spice,” rightly described as “a real mind blower.”
In the ’70s, after the demise of Cream and Blind Faith, Baker packed up his Range Rover and sped across Africa (as much as anyone could speed anywhere in an early Range Rover), in order to immerse himself in the African rhythms by which he had long been fascinated. At The Egg, things really took off on the songs where this African influence was most evident. “Aïn Témouchent,” named after the village where Ginger crashed his Range Rover into a “strategically placed” olive tree, allowed Ellis and Dankworth to explore non-western scales in extended, stimulating solos, built on a driving rhythm that found much of the audience rocking back and forth in their seats.
Even more compelling was “Aiko Biaye,” a re-worked traditional Nigerian children’s song, during which the percussionists took turns battling and complementing one another. Dodoo threw his large frame around, hammering away on his bongos and splash cymbals, grinning broadly all the while. Baker, never one for much cymbal action, ripped up and down his toms, snare and dual bass drums, seeming to produce more sound than his four limbs should allow. On occasion, he seemed to pause briefly before a fill in an effort to put together a sequence which would vex Dodoo. It never worked, but the results were impressive all the same. More astonishingly, Ginger actually let a few smiles creep past his legendary sneer.
Baker spoke little between songs – which is good because, between his rattling breaths, it took him a while to say anything. But he had enough lung capacity to briefly introduce each song, mention that he was in the intensive care unit with pneumonia two weeks ago, tell an entertaining vignette about airline incompetence, thank the audience and then tell them to shut up (lightheartedly?).
After a four-song first set, Baker informed the audience that the second set would be shorter because “the old man’s not feeling too clever.” In a way, one feels a bit sorry for Ginger Baker. He’s a sick old man, who named his first album in sixteen years – 2014’s Why? – after the question he always asks himself, following the “many catastrophes” of his life.
Why, one asks, would he still be doing this, if he didn’t have to?
Time is the answer. In interviews, Baker habitually mentions “time” as the chief criterion for a good drummer. Time, in its temporal sense, probably dictates that Ginger Baker may never play around here again. Yet, in its rhythmic sense, Ginger Baker seems to enjoy the fact that he has all the time in the world.
Jim Shahen Jr.’s review at The Times Union
Paul Rapp’s review at Metroland
Bryan Lasky’s review and photographs at NYS Music
Excerpt from David Singer’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Well into his 70s, Ginger Baker no longer plays like he did during his famed Cream and Blind Faith days. Nor does he care to. And while his chops are gone — he appears in pain when he hits those drums — his approach to rhythm remains innovative and his melodic sensibilities remain intact. On Tuesday night, Ginger Baker’s Jazz Confusion — an Afro-jazz quartet made up of himself, sax, bass and percussion — packed the Egg’s Swyer Theater for two short sets. While Baker’s drum set had two bass drums, he didn’t play double-bass, a signature sound of his from the ’60s. Instead he used his left foot to keep the high-hat cymbals clicking steadily through the night, regardless of the wide-ranging time signatures, which he liked to mention before the tunes.
Opening with Wayne Shorter’s ‘Footprints,’ saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis played the melody, then took a lengthy solo. Bassist Alec Dankworth followed with his solo, and then Baker, with percussionist Abass Dodoo, soloed together for several rounds before all joining together for the chorus. The process continued like this through the night, Baker’s presence dominating the sound and visuals, though his playing was far less skilled than his band members.”
GINGER BAKER’S JAZZ CONFUSION SET LIST
Footprints (Wayne Shorter)
12+ More Blues
Ginger Spice (Ron Miles)
Aiko Biaye (traditional)