(David Redfern/Redferns) –
Master Class: Ginger Baker, an incredibly accomplished and highly-influential drummer who transcended and informed many music genres, passed on Oct. 6, 2019 at the age of 80. Photographed here performing with proto hard-rock band Cream circa 1967.
Ginger Baker was a jazz drummer. It’s what he studied as a teenager, it’s how he closed out his recording life, and in a career that put him on the kit behind rock guitarists, Afrobeat pioneers, punk rockers, heavy metal musicians and others, he brought with him a ferocity that had only been heard in jazz before Baker arrived as a rock star in the mid-1960s.
Max Roach, Art Blakey, Louie Bellson — those were Baker’s antecedents, musicians whose playing roared behind soloists, who stepped out musically and blasts of melodic rhythm. He took what he saw on those bandstands and incorporated it into rock, becoming the first to use two bass drums; today, every hard rock act on the planet should be offering thanks and praise for Baker’s work.
Baker looked for interesting partners over the six decades he drummed professionally. He found them in Eric Clapton and Alexis Korner, Bill Laswell and Bill Frisell, Charlie Haden and Jack Bruce, John Lydon and Masters of Reality, Fela Kuti and Paul McCartney.
He seemed to make enemies out of just about everyone he worked with, and based on the 2012 documentary “Beware of Mr. Baker,” he wasn’t much of a father or a spouse either. He liked to drum, drink and do drugs.
“I just play the drums,” he says in the film, and it seems nothing else ever came that close to meaning as much in his life.
He brought polyrhythmic mayhem to rock ‘n’ roll after a stint playing a British interpretation of American R&B in the Graham Bond Organisation. Everything about the partnering of Baker, Bruce and Clapton was groundbreaking from day one: They created the footprint for heavy psychedelic rock, the power trio and jam bands. Here were three exceptional musicians who gave each other the space to excel and still managed to provide ample support for one another as a unit.
“Toad,” the closer on Cream’s first album, recorded in 1966, was Baker’s first showpiece. It opens with him shouldering his mates before taking off on his own, first with a few thunderous rolls behind Clapton’s sustained notes and then into the sort of soloing one would more likely hear at a John Coltrane performance than on a rock album. He romps from swing to tribal sounds to a bluesy run with cymbals and toms, spiraling from there into something other worldly that never loses its grasp on the initial beat.
It was like nothing on any other rock record at the time. Even the riff at the front of the song is more King Crimson than the blues Clapton wanted to maintain as his musical core.
Less than two years later, Cream would release a 16-minute live version of “Toad” on “Wheels of Fire” that’s an even more towering performance; the song was so important to the trio’s legend, it was the song they stretched out the most when they reunited in 2005 for shows at Madison Square Garden and Royal Albert Hall. Beyond Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick,” how many other bands from the ‘60s and ‘70s can say a song powered by a drum solo is a mandatory part of a set list?
Listen today to the variety of styles Baker plays on “White Room,” the stops he adds to “Born Under a Bad Sign” and his twist on a Bo Diddley rhythm at the front of Blind Faith’s rendition of Buddy Holly’s “Well Alright” and his shuffle in the middle. They’re all models of control created with a free spirit.
Baker’s post-Cream work was often misunderstood and underappreciated. Long before it was fashionable, Baker incorporated African styles in his music in his Air Force band, moving to Nigeria to work with the country’s best musicians, Fela Kuti and his drummer Tony Allen. It was Allen who famously said “he understands the African beat more than any other Westerner.” (An engaging Allen-Baker drum duet from 1978 is now a bonus track on 1971’s “Fela With Ginger Baker Live!”).
He could turn his cantankerous personality into masterful music making. Baker insulted the great jazz drummer Elvin Jones and then brought him onstage at a London concert for a half-hour-plus drum battle on his Blind Faith novelty chant “Do What You Like.” They up the value of the tune with their striking playing, but it’s tough to tell who’s who on the recording, it’s that masterful.
Beginning in the ‘70s he starts showing up in unlikely spots. He keeps time with a tin of gravel on McCartney’s “Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me),” which was recorded at Baker’s studio in Lagos. He matches John Lydon’s ferocity on Public Image Ltd.’s “Fishing” and “Bags” with uncompromising steady beats; it’s as far-removed from Afrobeat as his heavy-sounding work with the Baker Gurvitz Army and Masters of Reality
Baker ended his career as he began it, as a jazz drummer. He worked with Frisell, Haden, Pee Wee Ellis and others. He played soft, he roared, he brought out the African rhythms, he played bebop and he was swinging, always swinging. In those final three records, here was Baker once again giving the musicians the space they needed to express their own voices, providing support and speaking as loudly and idiosyncratic as ever.