Ginger Baker - photo by Michael Sherer
As is often the case with jazz based groups, this band said nothing as they took the small stage of BB King’s and began delivering their first song, “Footprints”, by saxophonist Wayne Shorter. (This was their sole cover song.) The only man to eventually speak throughout the set was Baker, and his first words were about how he was in hospital and at death’s door with pneumonia just a couple weeks prior, but that God didn’t want him yet. Baker added that he thanks the Almighty for that.
Baker, 75, a habitual cigarette smoker for at least fifty five years and former heroin user for many years is actually quite lucky to be alive. He’s frail, but yet defies his outward weakened state when behind a drum set. Not with power, speed or flash, but with his lifelong gift of great timing, finesse, dynamics, accents and especially the difficult odd time signatures that pointedly separates him from the majority of rock drummers. Baker, after all, started as a jazz drummer in the ‘50’s, and has never left that mindset. If anyone in the audience was expecting even one Cream song, or anything resembling rock, they were in the wrong place. Baker, notoriously cantankerous and volatile, made it clear that has has no tolerance for any prodding from the crowd for such music. He summed this up by getting right to the point when quipping: “Hecklers Will Be Shot.”
Baker is in very fine company with his band. Naturally, a consummate musician’s musician like Baker is going to select top caliber musicians for his band. They are tenor saxophonist Peewee Ellis, bassist Alec Dankworth and percussionist Abbas Dodoo. Ellis is best known for his years with James Brown in the ‘60’s. He’s also played with the brilliant Van Morrison.
As is a tenet for jazz, the set allowed for breaks featuring each musician to solo over and a sense of improvisatory space. Dankworth is able to alternate between upright and electric bass with equal skill and taste. Ellis is able to emote a wide range of expressions from his horn, and Dodoo is a master percussionist, weaving with Baker and the band seamlessly. This great band interplay, and especially between Baker and Dodoo, was particularly evident on “Aiko Biaye’‘, a song from Lagos, and on “Ginger Spice”, a song with a highly esoteric 9/8 time signature, as well as “Ain Temouchant’‘, a song Baker said he wrote to commemorate driving his car off a mountain in Nigeria, winding up in an olive tree.
Baker has had many entanglements and disasters in his life, which probably contributes to his irascible nature. This was addressed in the band’s encore, when they played the title tune to their 2014 CD, which came out thirteen years after Baker’s previous release. The new recording is called “Why?,” which Baker explained is what he asks himself every time one of these disasters happen.
One thing that has gone very right for Baker is that he’s widely considered one of the premiere drummers and overall musicians of his time, and is seriously admired by millions. Nothing to scoff at there.