BY MARK GUARINO | CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
Ginger Baker is not an easy interview for journalists. In fact, he appears intent to make communicating with him troublesome for most people.
“I don’t know what you mean,” “I don’t know. Things just happened,” “I have no idea really,” “What are you talking about?” and “You’re off your [expletive] head. You’re totally mad,” were common responses to questions covering his career during a recent phone conversation from his home in the English countryside. He also paused the conversation so he could pay a visit to the toilet.
Words may fail him but the drums do not. A devotee of pioneering jazz drummers Max Roach and Phil Seamen, Baker infused jazz polyrhythms and magnetic showmanship into Cream and Blind Faith, two of the most successful British rock bands of the 1960s. His dancing African rhythms, melodic playing, and even enlarged drum-kit, were profoundly influential for the next generation of rock drummers.
Despite worldwide fame, Baker fled for several years to Lagos, Nigeria, where he recorded albums with the famed Afrobeat bandleader Fela Kuti. There were also instrumental albums with The Baker Gurvitz Army, Ginger Baker’s Air Force, and other groups that combined jazz improvisation and African rhythms, creating a lengthy discography of innovative work that forecast an interest in world beats and genre fusion long before the larger Western world took notice.
But don’t ask Baker about any of it. While rock drummers, from Lars Ulrich of Metallica to Stewart Copeland of The Police, pronounce Baker as the heaviest and most flamboyant of his era, Baker recoils at his past associations with most of his former projects, particularly those in the rock world. As shown in “Beware of Mr. Baker,” the 2012 film documentary of his life, Baker, 74, has conducted his life as if behind the drum-kit — chasing impulses, searching for new beats, and living only in the moment.
That life has also filled a suitcase of regrets. There are several ex-wives, a lost fortune, a harrowing heroin addiction and recovery, health issues, and exiles, self-imposed and otherwise. For those reasons, Baker says, the album “Why?” (Motema) earned its title.
“Terrible things keep happening to me throughout my life and this question you end up asking is ‘Why? Why me?’ So that is sort of what it about,” he says.
Baker is in Chicago Monday and Tuesday at City Winery with the appropriately named Ginger Baker’s Jazz Confusion, a guitar-less group that features a top shelf line-up of players: tenor saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, bassist Alec Dankworth, and percussionist Abass Dodoo, all musicians who have logged years supporting similar cantankerous musical geniuses like James Brown and Van Morrison. Besides including interpretations of songs by Wayne Shorter and Sonny Rollins, the new album is largely a hybrid of bebop and Afrobeat.
“It’s quite a musical band, we’re all quite exposed,” says Dankworth by phone last week from Oakland, Ca., during a tour stop. “There’s no chordal instruments, no guitars, so we all have quite an important role to contribute to the total sound of the band. As a result, we have to be listening to each other with big ears.”
Baker was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 for his work in Cream. Twelve years later, in 2005, he returned to those songs, performing multiple nights in London and New York City. Baker says those days are definitely behind him (“No. Not at all,” is his answer when a band reunion comes up), not necessarily because he’s not interested in a major payday or playing with old friends, but touring has taken a toll on his health.
“I enjoy the gigs part of it, but the traveling part of it I loathe and detest because it’s very painful,” he says.
Yet despite the toil of age, especially for someone battling chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Baker’s playing remains resolute. On “Why?” the spectacular intensity he is known for is replaced by more nuanced interactions with DoDoo’s hand percussion and bassist Dankworth, both of whom Baker says are the best musicians he’s ever played with.
Dankworth calls Baker “a listening drummer” and says the group is strictly about finding the melody of songs without the interaction of rhythm without relying on a piano or guitar. The minimal setting expands the possibilities. As demonstrated on “Why?” the elegant arrangements direct the musicians to improvise collectively; For Baker, whose life has been marked with more high drama than low, the spirit of the music achieves a more peaceful tone, but no less intricate or concentrated.
Baker says outside brief stints of touring, he mostly prefers remaining in bed at home watching sports or the news on television. He no longer listens to music, only his own when recording. When asked about particular albums he has under his own name, he says nothing stands out as particularly memorable in making them.
As for the documentary assessing his life, it musters a passing grade: “Some of it is very good and some of it is bloody stupid.”
The stupid parts: “Some of the people that got interviewed for it. People who I don’t know and had very little to do with in my life.”
I tell him it will be a pleasure to see him in Chicago.
“If I make it that far. You might have privilege of seeing me die onstage,” he says.