I was waiting at the 34th Street Penn Station subway platform in Manhattan to head Uptown the other day, and I heard and saw two young African Americans playing drums using only plastic paint canisters to pound with their sticks and hands. The African rhythms fascinated me and caused me to stay and miss the next train. Why? Because the drumming reminded me of Ginger Baker, my nomination for greatest ‘Rock’ drummer. He recently performed at the age of 74 in New York City, and I had not been able to attend his show for scheduling reasons. I had mixed feelings anyhow: Once, some years ago here in NYC, I met with him (and two of his band members) and tried to engage him.
He was just awful to me; insulting, condescending and arrogant — the kind of person who seems to enjoy hurting peoples’ feelings. Not a new perspective; check out the recent documentary film ‘Beware of Mr Baker’ for a fascinating overview of this great drummer, endowed with a nasty persona: It even begins with Baker breaking the nose of the film maker with his walking stick! The documentary contains valuable interviews with Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce (among others); the two, who together with Baker, made up ‘Cream’, one of the all-time greatest rock bands in history, albeit short-lived (1966–1968).
Baker, like all the truly great rock drummers, is not a rock drummer by training; he is a serious and first-class jazz drummer. He moved into rock to form Cream because that’s where the money was. He was the one who motivated Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce to form Cream, and in an interview in the 1990’s he said he did so because (I paraphrase), ‘I just wanted to become filthy rich!’.
His drumming style is unique and immediately recognizable, even when he plays rock; it has blatant jazz influences with fascinating simple and intuitive — but, also complex — African rhythms layered throughout with a beautiful use of flams. His simplicity is special. His use of double-bass drums is perhaps the finest ever and he integrates them seamlessly into all the other drum work; his ability to improvise in live performances is out of this world (listen to the live-version of ‘Spoonful’ from the album ‘Wheels of Fire’, and of course the live version of his famous drum solo ‘Toad’ from the same album, and then the live version of ‘I’m So Glad’ from their last album ‘Goodbye Cream’).
Baker was never known for extraordinary speed and dexterity such as in the astonishing wrist/arm work of Billy Cobham, or the machine- like precision and speed of the classical-influenced rock drummer Carl Palmer (from ‘Emerson Lake and Palmer’, 1970). His style tends toward a slow-pounding booming and earthy one, tom-toms tuned low. He usually plays high-hats with his left hand on his left side, and holds his sticks symmetrically (non-jazz way). His upper tom-toms are positioned almost completely flat as opposed to tilted; and he stacks cymbals (some of which even today are the same Zildjian cymbals he used when in Cream).
After Cream broke up, Baker and Clapton quickly hooked up with Steve Winwood (and bassist Ric Greck; Bruce had left, he and Baker famously did not get along) to form ‘Blind Faith’, producing an exceptional album but the band lasted for only that one album. Unlike the Cream albums, Blind Faith was recorded with far more attention paid to recording quality. Baker’s drumming was now in stereo, instead of (yes, unbelievable) all his drumming coming from the right channel as was the case even during his studio recording of his famous drum solo ‘Toad’ from their first album ‘Fresh Cream’ in 1966.
Many odd and adventurous things happened after that including a period of time in which Baker moved to Lagos, Nigeria for a number of years to play African music with African musicians, struggled with drug addiction, dealt with financial problems and so on; he then lived in South Africa for years, until moving back to the UK.
In the midst of all that, Baker remarkably went back to his Jazz roots with albums ‘Horses and Trees’ (1986), ‘Middle Passage’ (1990), and finally forming the ‘The Ginger Baker Trio’ in 1994 with Bill Frissel (guitar) and Charlie Haden (double bass), yielding two albums, ‘Going Back Home’ (1994) and ‘Falling Off The Roof’ (1996). In 1999, he formed a Colorado based band, the Denver Jazz Quintet-to-Octet, and came out with ‘Coward of The Country’ which includes trumpeter Ron Miles, bassist Artie Moore, and saxophonist Fred Hess. Then silence, except for two live Cream reunions in 2005 in London and New York that were well received.
In October 2013, he was on tour again with a new line up including Pee Wee Ellis (saxophone), Alec Dankworth (bass) and Abass Dodoo (percussion). It is this same line up that came back here last month to promote a studio recorded album, ‘Why?’
I acquired it immediately. His mug shot serves as the cover, making him look like a sickly drunk, a maniac or both. But the music is exceptional and the recording quality is superb. No doubt he has slowed down, but since his style never required extreme speed, nothing much is lost. His double-bass drum playing is very subdued if existing at all, and he lets Abass Dodoo add in fascinating odds and ends (congos, little cymbals) but without letting his ego get in the way at all; they all play together naturally, brilliantly as a top-notch acoustic combo; the imaging allows each member to shine. Much of the album is even quite joyful, and makes you want to dance, such as the track ‘St. Thomas’. As Baker’s high-hats click away from the right channel, keeping perfect beat, just turn around and you can imagine sitting in the driver’s seat (his throne); wonderful. It is a pleasure to hear a 74-year-old play like this, still teaching us new things. Highly recommended.