Ginger Baker has been ruling the drums since before I was born. However, though not a baby boomer, I wholeheartedly endorse that Cream and Blind Faith are bands in a class of their own. Never listened, young ‘un? Do yourself a favour and take a road trip time trip on youtube/vevo to see what rock once was. At least in my own lifetime, Baker managed to sneak into a few tracks of John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd.’s Album. However, Baker has spent more time as a jazz man than a rock man, and the Montreal Jazz fest an ideal vehicle to bring him to the city.
But fuck history, Ginger Baker is a boss now. He’s been a boss since he started in 1958 and he’s stayed a boss until this very moment. I say moment since he morbidly jokes that there’s a week in Manchester for to the person who can predict at what gig and during what song, Baker pops it (second prize is two weeks in Manchester).
What makes Baker so peerless is that he makes playing the drums look so effortless. He sits with such upright posture and seems to move largely from the elbow down (if that), giving a nuanced conservation of effort in his movements. Yet he creates such complex, riveting runs on the drums. Only his breathless comments at the end of his songs suggests that playing takes far more out of him than his perfect pose suggests. The other thing that makes him so great — the way he knows not to dominate, that he adjusts the temperature of his playing from the occasional flourish to centre stage. It’s when he throws in a roll or a few syncopated beats that you know that he keeps it simpler for the music’s totality.
The show at the Montreal Jazz Fest featured Baker’s band of the last few years, Ginger Baker Jazz Confusion. Given that Baker can play with whoever he wants, he picks classy musicians who are equal players. Collectively, the GB Jazz Confusion group seems to weigh in at the upper end of the scales, both in talent and poundage. Saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis and bassist Alec Dankworth are adept, super skilled on their respective instruments. Everyone’s heart swelled for Ghanian percussionist Abass Dodoo, who Baker described, among many other accolades, as his friend and bodyguard. Dodoo looked back to Baker from his congas and two spiral cymbals for cues with a loyalty and devotion that made him shine.
Songs played could come from anywhere and everywhere, of course. The set was jazz, much to the chagrin of anyone who was hoping for I Feel Free or some other rock classic. The closest was the song Why? where the audience got to shout the key word as the drummers raised their sticks. He played Ain Temouchant, a song he told us was written after driving his car off the Atlas Mountains and into an olive tree. Another hit was Ron Miles’ Ginger Spice. The influences from Africa and Latin America were evident, especially with Lagos folksong Aiko Biaye. He pulled out some Thelonious Monk and a Cyril Davis piece. I think Baker could have played anything and the audience would have been spellbound. I am not sure if this is typical, but he favored the use of his high-hat to keep a pulse going on his left foot no most songs. He manages to turn the drums into something melodic and go beyond their percussive role.
Baker is not a well man and though while playing the drums, he’s in another world, when he walks to and from the stage, he is slow and needs help (Dodoo helped him on and off). He wears sunglasses to cover his eyes. His morbid jokes about his death, rather British in character, are probably not just the complaints of an old man.
Overall, I felt in the presence of greatness, of someone who was so far above anyone I had ever seen perform that this man is a legend now and a legend forever. The audience pleaded for Baker to return for an encore and stood for him as they would any hero. Truly, those who knew to catch Baker were both wise and lucky.
Ginger Baker Jazz Confusion played on June 30 at the Montreal Jazz Festival 2014.