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.”



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