Ginger Baker was once considered the musician least likely to survive the ‘60s. And yet, in 2014, he finds himself on the ascent. The award-winning 2012 documentary Beware of Mr. Baker brought renewed attention to his singular music, fiery and self-destructive personality, and dramatic life story. Ironically, his extreme adventurousness and impulsivity— evidenced, for example, by his leaving England and moving to Nigeria in 1970 to play and record music—are the same qualities that helped make him such a versatile and continually evolving musician. Baker has long ranked among the world’s greatest drummers, and critics have deemed his recent live shows with his quartet, Jazz Confusion, some of the best work of his career. On June 24, Motéma Music releases Why?, his first new recording in 16 years, coinciding with a thirteen-date North American tour with Jazz Confusion June 14-30.
For his time with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-inducted band Cream, Baker is often credited with revolutionizing rock drumming and influencing countless other rock drummers. But he has always been, first and foremost, a jazz musician. What distinguished his playing in Cream, Blind Faith and other bands, aside from his stunning virtuosity and dramatic flair, was the fact that he was essentially the first “jazz-rock fusion” drummer. He brought to rock the jazz technique he learned from his deep study of music by the likes of Baby Dodds, Max Roach, Elvin Jones and Art Blakey. Baker’s setup (two bass drums instead of one) and style (improvised drum breaks and solos) made him unique amongst his peers.
Baker’s love of jazz also cannot be decoupled from his deep appreciation for African music, introduced to him in the early ‘60s by his idol and friend Phil Seamen, and manifested in own his playing through the heavy use of toms, introducing an oft-imitated tribal sound to rock. This influence has been an essential part of Baker’s style throughout his career. It is no surprise then that African rhythm is a key ingredient on Why?
The inclusion of Abass Dodoo in Jazz Confusion accentuates the African feel of the album and hearkens back to Baker’s friendship with another Ghanaian percussionist, the master drummer Guy Warren. While visiting Warren in 1970, Baker became fascinated with the music he heard on a Nigerian radio station, contacted his friend Fela Kuti, went to Lagos, and decided to build a recording studio, Batakota (ARC). During construction, Baker and Kuti recorded Fela Ransome-Kuti and Africa 70 with Ginger Baker: Live at Abbey Road and London. Baker still considers that album one of the high points of his career. (Once ARC opened, in 1973, Paul McCartney and Wings recorded part of Band on the Run there.)
Baker continued to reveal his jazz chops in the Ginger Baker Trio (with Charlie Haden and Bill Frisell) and DJQ20 (with Ron Miles, Artie Moore and others), with whom he recorded his last album, Coward of the County in 1998. Why? is the next step in Baker’s return to his jazz roots, a culmination of his storied career and an amalgamation of his jazz and African music influences.
Why? features material Baker has explored while performing live over the last two years with Jazz Confusion. The music ranges from Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” and Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas,” to “Aiko,” which adapts a Nigerian folk tune. The album’s title track echoes Baker’s early music with the Graham Bond Organisation, and represents Baker reflecting on his life: on the personal loss he’s experienced, the dreams he’s had fulfilled and destroyed, asking the question “why?” The tune starts with a prison work song about a man who killed his wife, and also includes “Wade in the Water” as a remembrance of Graham Bond, who died tragically in 1974.
Reviewing Baker and Jazz Confusion at Iridium last fall—Baker’s first New York City club gig since 1997—Ben Ratliff wrote in The New York Times that the band “comes to jazz sideways or through very old roots...Mr. Baker’s imposing and broad, slow and confident. It’s not loud with ambition, but with spirit and intent.”