Just when you think you know someone...there really isn’t much to discuss as to Ginger Baker’s revered status in the bastions of rockdom. After all, they don’t put musicians into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for pounding on a snare drum with the Winona State University marching band. But after chatting with the iconic drummer for ‘60s rock titans Cream and Blind Faith, it appears that Baker has simply been “masquerading” as a rock and roller.
Upon hearing the suggestion that he would play the part of “jazz evangelist” for many of the concertgoers at his Oct. 18 Musical Instrument Museum gig with his Jazz Confusion, Baker said simply, “Well I don’t know really what you’re talking about because Cream was jazz. I've never been a rock drummer. I just play the drums man.” And as for those that may show up expecting a blistering rock drum solo rather than nuanced jazz percussion, Baker added, “Yeah. That’s their problem.”
For Ginger Baker’s Jazz Confusion, the fabled rhythmist enlisted jazz saxophone legend Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis (whose credits include co-writing several of James Brown’s biggest hits), bassist Alec Dankworth (the son of celebrated jazz duo Cleo Laine and John Dankworth) and Ghanian hand percussionist Abass Dodoo.
The group effortlessly combines the music of Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, and Wayne Shorter and showcases original material by Baker and Ellis. With two percussionists, a bassist, and a saxophonist, Jazz Confusion is able to recreate these masterful works under a completely new and exciting aesthetic that is best described as Afro-blues-jazz fusion.
Although Baker played in a jazz trio in the early ‘90s, he was quick to point out the innovative style of the new quartet. “The band is completely new. It’s a completely new lineup that nobody’s ever done before – two drummers; me and Abass Dodoo.”
“Abass and I have been working together for a long time and we complement each other. The last review we got was a five star review where they said Abass and I seem to have some kind of psychic connection. It’s an unusual lineup and it’s been going incredibly well. People love it.”
Truth be told, the 74-year-old Baker has harbored jazz aspirations from the get go. Should the mind-boggling jazz laid down by his quartet fail to convince anyone as to the “rocker’s” true musical roots, skeptics need only consider the significance of blues and African rhythms in Baker's maturity and progression as a drummer.
Baker lived and played music in Nigeria from 1970 to 1976. But he confessed that his love for the music of the motherland actually began much earlier. “I got into African music in 1960. It was a cool feeling stumbling onto it.”
It seems almost blasphemous to suggest that Baker learned any of his influential techniques simply by “stumbling” onto them. But to hear him describe it, he became the renowned drummer that he is by, well, listening. “I play the drums! I'm a drummer. I play by listening to the other musicians I'm playing with. We all listen to each other.”
When I asked Baker about his musical evolution over the last twenty years – since the Ginger Baker Trio days – he “gently” reminded me that he’s been toiling as a drummer for quite a bit longer. “I've been a musician for the last over 50 years. I'm 74. I've been a musician for 58 years now – a professional musician. What are you talking about 20 years for (laughing)?”
Baker did admit however, that even after those almost six decades of outstanding music, he is still searching. “I always have been and I always will (laughs). I don’t know. I’m still playing. I think exactly the same as I've always felt. I'm me (laughing). I don’t analyze things. The world wants to analyze and talk about my style and things like this. It doesn’t come into it. I just play.”
And that pretty much sums it up. Whether you consider Ginger Baker one of the greatest rock drummers of all time – or one of the most influential jazz drummers – it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that he just plays…