Review: Ginger Baker in Glasgow
Fred Grand reports that the former Cream drummer has found in his new group with Alec Dankworth and Pee Wee Ellis a balance that plays to his strengths, cracking that elusive jazz nut once and for all
Photo: Saša Huzjak
Few headliners at a jazz festival can claim to have been voted the person least likely to survive the 1960s. With a celebrated notoriety as a hell-raiser who explored the rock & roll lifestyle to its full potential, Ginger Baker can lay legitimate claim to that slightly dubious mantle. He found his eternal niche with Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce in the rock power trio Cream. The group stretched conventional song forms to breaking point and foregrounded improvisation to an almost unprecedented extent. Their brief career is perhaps as crucial as the influence of Hendrix in turning the ears of Miles Davis, giving Baker at least a tangential relationship to the direction taken by jazz in the 1970s. An African sojourn saw the drummer falling for the vibrant rhythms of the continent and changed his musical outlook forever.
Although Baker has "dabbled" on-and-off with jazz for many years, it has usually been his more crossover projects in collaboration with the likes of Bill Laswell, Nicky Skopelitis and Jonas Hellborg that have best suited his unique approach. Deceptively crude African polyrhythms fused brilliantly with heavy dub bass lines on sessions such as 1990's Middle Passage (Axiom), and I've always preferred these sessions to the string of largely forgettable straight ahead sets the drummer cut for Atlantic. Although he featured players such as Bill Frisell, Ron Miles and James Carter, Baker's touch frequently seemed just too heavy, dragging the beat and simply not "swinging" (however you define that rather nebulous phenomenon).
For the final night of the 2012 Glasgow jazz festival, Baker brought his new group Jazz Confusion to the city's Old Fruitmarket. With former James Brown hornman Pee Wee Ellis (tenor saxophone), the versatile Alec Dankworth (acoustic and electric basses) and Ghanaian percussion master Abass Dodoo, this slightly improbable aggregate always seemed likely to be capable of surprise. And so it turned out to be – with heavy tribal rhythms and deep pulsing bass lines, the Laswell sound had found an effective acoustic voice and built a clever bridge between leftfield and mainstream.
On the opening number, Wayne Shorter's Footprints, the drummer's rather leaden approach didn't immediately win me over. Ellis carried the line with great authority and Dankworth's presence provided a rock-solid backbone, but the piece felt slightly static until my ears had attuned to the largely non-Western approach to rhythm. With a rich post-Coltrane sound, Ellis certainly knows his way around the instrument's false fingerings and multiphonics and seems to have hidden his talents under a bushel of funk for most of his career. Given the group's leaning towards tribal percussion, the composite sound wasn't unlike Kahil El'Zabar's "Ritual Trio", and Ellis showed a surprising kinship to Ari Brown and Fred Anderson. Monk's Bemsha Swing was cleverly rearranged to allow Baker's almost steel pan-like approach to accent the theme, with Dankworth's solo a model of invention within a groove and Ellis's deep Rouse-like tenor wringing every nuance out of the theme.
Several of the saxophonist's compositions were featured in the set, the loose and bluesy Twelve And More Blues being fairly typical and making a great blowing vehicle. Even Baker seemed to be swinging now, his large two bass drum kit sparking out crisp cross-rhythms with the animated Dodoo. A decidedly off-kilter variety of swing, it recalled the Art Ensemble of Chicago in their prime and was devastatingly effective. Ginger Spice could perhaps have used more space for Ron Miles's haunting theme to breathe, and as soon as it was over Baker's croaking voice announced an impromptu break so that he could "go to the khazi" – the spirit of rock & roll indeed.
After the break Charlie Haden's Ginger Blues saw Baker at perhaps his most limber, and it positively smouldered. Cyril Davies, a dedication to the late British blues pioneer, brought a noticeable change of mood. Those tribal rhythms became almost monolithic and Ellis played his most astringently free solo of the evening. Yet no matter how expressionistic the piece became, there was always a groove or a faint blue line for the spellbinding saxophonist to follow. Before we knew it we'd arrived at the encore, Rollins' calypso-inspired St Thomas, where a set of steel pans really wouldn't have gone amiss.
In Jazz Confusion, Baker has somewhat ironically found a new jazz clarity. Had there been a conventional harmony instrument in the mix then this group would almost certainly have been a less appealing prospect. As it stood, the drummer seems at last to have found a balance that plays to his strengths, cracking that elusive jazz nut once and for all and developing a format which could serve him well with a number of frontline instruments.
For more southerly jazz fans, Ginger Baker's Jazz Confusion appears as part of the first Rye International Jazz Festival in late August.
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