Archive for October, 2019

ginger baker, 1939-2019

Ginger Baker.

In the authorized 2010 biography “Composing Himself,” the late Jack Bruce offered this recollection of hearing Ginger Baker for the first time following a 1962 gig in Cambridge.

“He looked like a demon in that cellar, sitting down there with his red hair. He had this drum kit that he made himself. I never heard drums sound so good. I’d never seen a drummer like him. I knew that I wanted to play with him.”

By 1966, Bruce and Baker, along with Eric Clapton, would form Cream, perhaps the most influential rock trio, outside of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, of its day. The band cut a mere four albums over its scant three-year lifespan, but still managed to change forever the face of rock ‘n’ roll. The first three recordings, 1966’s “Fresh Cream,” 1967’s “Disraeli Gears” and 1968’s “Wheels of Fire,” remain essential listening for any aspiring rock enthusiast. Both were stylistic mash-ups born out of electric blues, although each player had his signature contribution. For Baker, who died today at the age of 80, it was the construction of an elemental groove and a seemingly limitless set of variations to keep the beat from stagnating.

Listen to “We Were Wrong,” one of the many highlights from “Disraeli Gears,” to hear this in practice. Over an otherworldly high tenor vocal from Bruce, the initial beat is held in place by a simple hi-hat cymbal. Then Bruce goes wild with a rumbling that dances around the melody bolstered by tribal-level might. You almost sense it separating from the song itself to circle listeners in a way that brings them into the resulting séance.

Baker’s career would splinter in numerous directions after Cream’s split and a subsequent one album/one year tenure with Clapton in Blind Faith, all of which held far less commercial potential than his former bands. Such a scenario largely seemed to please the drummer. There was the primitive fusion music of Ginger Baker’s Air Force, the masterful early ‘70s Afrobeat collaboration with Fela Kuti, the splendid ‘90s jazz trio with Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden and myriad projects in between that included recordings with everyone from Hawkwind to Public Image, Ltd.

There was also an offstage reputation to go with his world class music, specifically an ill-tempered disposition that turned unrepentantly ugly when met by an opposing artist of equal intensity. For much of Baker’s career, that artist would be Bruce (who died in 2014). The two would play together in numerous ensembles through the decades, most of which dissolved into seas of animosity, including a short-lived Cream reunion that only lasted long enough for brief engagements at the Royal Albert Hall and Carnegie Hall.

The only time I got to see Baker was with Bruce at a December 1989 performance at Bogart’s in Cincinnati to promote the bassist’s then-current “A Question of Time” album.

Baker agreed to serve as drummer for the tour, but reportedly never bothered to learn any of Bruce’s newer music. As such, the show was split into two sets, one involving then-current material with another drummer and a second centering on vintage Cream songs with Baker joining in.

Even then, Baker looked like an old man, despite the fact he was barely 50. His playing was still commanding, however. “Toad,” the Cream tune that was essentially a vehicle for an extended drum solo, remained the audience favorite, but his playing was equally inventive during the groove variations that fortified less obvious Cream works like “N.S.U.” and “Politician.”

Baker and Bruce were supposedly at each other’s throats the entire tour. Engaging in such conflict was probably in their contracts. But the artistic spirit that was ripe in the days of Cream, the drive that would carry both artists in markedly different directions during the ‘90s and beyond, was in fresh abundance at the Cincinnati show. That night, a legend – well, two legends – did themselves proud.

“Material and style aren’t so important,” wrote Ben Ratliff in a New York Times review of a 2013 club performance by Baker’s aptly titled Jazz Confusion band. “You’re getting the essence of his sound, up close, with two kick drums and two snare drums… and his personality.”

in performance: bela fleck, zakir hussain and edgar meyer with rakesh chaurasia

Bela Fleck, Zakir Hussain and Edgar Meyer. Photo by Jim McGuire.

After tearing through the absurdly treacherous rhythmic passages in a tune Indian tabla percussionist Zakir Hussain penned for longtime musical pal John McLaughlin, banjoist Bela Fleck – an artist who is not exactly a slouch when it comes to the demands of progressive music – offered a subtle confession.

“That was hard.”

Cue bassist Edgar Meyer, a Fleck compadre of several decades and an artist with an equal sense of artistic adventure and, perhaps more importantly, sense of humor.

“It’s not hard if you practice.”

That was the kind of alliance Hussain, Fleck and Meyer struck up Friday evening at the Singletary Center for the Arts in a fascinating East meets West musical summit where borders quickly dissolved and a common artistic topography was merrily explored.

Take the show-opening “Bubbles,” a tune from “The Melody of Rhythm,” the 2009 album that largely introduced the trio’s collaborative spirit. It began, as did many of the evening’s pieces, with a bowed bass passage from Meyer that danced between the plaintive and playful revealing elements of classical and folk working alongside a hearty measure of the blues. Hussain gradually added rhythmic colors on tabla until the instrument’s unmistakably Eastern sensibility took over. Then Fleck’s lead became the tune’s catalyst, establishing a tone of remarkable agility and lightness – a combination he would return to throughout the performance. The resulting music sounded, alternately, earthy and spiritual – a contemplative journey with numerous roots-driven signposts.

“That’s what this is going to be like,” Fleck told the audience at the tune’s conclusion – a promise for the evening the trio proudly kept. In short order, though, the group became a quartet with the addition of Rakesh Chaurasia on a variety of Indian flutes, including the bamboo-made bansuri. This added another voice to the group’s global fabric, enhancing vibrant runs that punctuated melodies with Meyer but also producing backdrops with mischievous colors and drone-like subtleties that underscored a meditative feel under Hussain’s playing.

For some, this might have seemed a curious mix – two popular American stylists whose strong bluegrass roots long ago became springboards for myriad outside inspirations teamed with a pair of master Indian classical artists and their penchant for collaboration. Fleck (a Lexingtonian briefly in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s) may have been the marquee draw and, to be sure, his performance did not disappoint. But the glue to this ensemble was clearly Hussain, whose sense of rhythmic adventure was at the helm of every piece performed, from works of raga-like grace to lyrically spacious pieces that emphasized the expansive expression of Fleck and Meyer.

The evening’s most enchanting moment, though, was also its most traditional and it belonged to Hussain alone. In an exhibition of konnakol vocalizing, Hussain put his percussion where his mouth was though the rapid recitation of syllables in an almost mathematical flow of meter. The result became wildly rhythmic and conversational even though the tablas were mostly left silent.

What was said likely seemed foreign to American ears. But the sense of musicality and joy exhibited needed no translation.


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