Ginger Baker's Jazz Confusion
Musical Instrument Museum
October 18, 2013
The first thing you notice about Ginger Baker is that, for a jazz drummer, he holds his sticks wrong. Of course, despite all his flirtations with African rhythms and jazz in many forms, Baker--a founding member of psychedelic rock heavyweights Cream and Blind Faith, as well as leading outfits such as Ginger Baker's Air Force and Baker Gurvitz Army-- is at his core a rock and roll drummer.
However, that doesn't mean he isn't one hell of a jazz drummer, which was evident during his two Musical Instrument Museum sets with Jazz Confusion. Already accustomed to playing in supergroups, he assembled one for these musical explorations--Ghanaian percussionist Abass Dodoo sat next to Baker, while bassist Alec Dankworth and former James Brown saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis rounded out the quartet.
The combo opened the evening with a steamy, kinetic version of Wayne Shorter's "Footprints." Beginning with a sultry sax intro, the track broke into a heavily moving rhythm fortified by the two drummers. Then came the moments where the drums took a polyrhythmic, African turn as Dodoo and Baker carried the tune in a new direction before Ellis and Dankworth brought the two back into the core track. It was a powerful opening number, lasting almost 10 minutes, and it set the tone for the evening.
He's known for his cantankerous attitude, but his dry wit was in effect as well on Friday. "Someone's got a dose of the clap," he said, after being interrupted by applause--the delivery was so dry it almost went unnoticed.
Ellis then kicked off his own composition, "Twelve and More Blues," with a long slow wail that, after a quick drum breakbeat, morphed into a funky New Orleans-style walking' jazz shredder that afforded everyone moments of freedom and introspective interplay.
Baker next explained how a car crash in Algeria--one where he ended up in an olive tree lucky to be alive--inspired "Ain Temouchant," which opened with a nasally sax and slinky bass pattern recalling an Arabian bazaar. The drum patterns were African in nature with circular, repeating patterns and brief shots of call and response interplay between Dodoo and Baker.
The African influence was also strong on "Ginger Spice," a Ron Miles composition. Baker was the first drummer to incorporate African percussion dialects in rock music--he performed with Afrobeat founder Fela Kuti as he lived in Nigeria in the early 1970s--and his fascination and openness to exploit these sounds has always carried over into his jazz bands.
After a short break 40 minutes into the set--Baker is 74 but plays with the energy of someone in his 20s--he returned to the riser. "There's nothing like being confused," he said. "So we're going to do something very confusing."
It wasn't confusing, per se, as the band knew exactly what the intent was as it incorporated Manu Dibango-like soul makossa with John Coltrane tonation over a sassy post-bop gallop. Magical was how it all came together--like four friends serendipitously meeting on a street corner, at night, under mysterious and perhaps threatening circumstances. The song thrived on that wonderful edge.
Sonny Rollin's "St. Thomas" followed in the same forceful, swirling and shifting manner. Baker was content to push the rhythm with his double bass drum set up (copied from Louis Bellson), his rock drummer attitude slipping in. It was interesting to note that while the tempo may have increased, Baker played with quiet efficiency and style--much as he did channeling his jazz sensibilities in Cream.
It was hard to tell if he was enjoying himself or just focused, though a smile did slip out once. It was quite the opposite of Dodoo, whose broad smile and facial expressions were never ending.
The show wrapped up all too soon with a few more gems, including "Aiko Biaye"--what Baker called a "Yoruba lullaby from Lagos we're going to play more like a war chant." Based on a simple, traditional Nigerian folk song, this was perhaps the mellowest moment of the evening--at first--before building into a polyrhythmic killer, the sax sounding like a cry for action while a propulsive marching beat drove the pace and had the entire quartet breathing hard.
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Baker especially. Looking winded, Ginger Baker--in a button down shirt with jeans (one leg rolled up), made his way offstage with a wave. He returned for a single encore of "Why?" stating, as he began, "I'm too old for this rot."
Critic's Notebook: Last Night: Ginger Baker's Jazz Confusion Personal bias: One of the preeminent rock drummers in history known for ferocious jazz shows replete with African overtones. What's not to like? The crowd: No one was waiting for "Sunshine of Your Love," but many were around when it was composed. Random notebook dump: Baker, even at 74 years old, still has amazing chops and it's easy to see he could still front a rock band--any band--if he wanted to go in another direction. Overheard: By a woman in the crowd: "That guy just looks cranky. I heard he's a real ass."
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