A recent documentary on the legendary drummer warns us to beware of Mr. Baker. But the latest record by this unsinkable, grooving, global bohemian delivers a more positive and powerful message: Behold Mr. Baker!

This past June, legendary Cream and Blind Faith drummer Ginger Baker released his latest album as a leader, Why? Featuring his group Jazz Confusion, with Pee Wee Ellis on tenor saxophone, Alec Dankworth on upright and electric bass, and African hand percussionist Abass Dodoo, the disc is a vital hybrid of jazz and African styles, which have been at the core of Baker’s aesthetic for his entire professional life.

The release follows on the heels of Beware of Mr. Baker, a 2012 documentary film profiling the music career and impulsive exploits of the freewheeling drummer. It’s known that Baker is less than enamored with doing interviews, which often pique his notorious irascibility. But that’s partly because his artistry effectively springs from a visceral, intuitive core. “I just play drums,” he says. In addition, Baker is enduring formidable ailments.

Although the more flamboyant, sensational aspects of Baker’s life, as seen in Beware, can be readily found smeared across the Net, the more rewarding choice is to search for the many amazing performance videos from the Cream days and well beyond. Or, better yet, check out the great drumming Baker is still delivering today on Why?

MD was pleased to speak via Skype with the indomitable Mr. Baker, who chatted with us from his home in the south of England.

 

 

MD: Congratulations on the new record. It has a nice, raw, open sound.

Ginger: I like it. I think it’s great. It’s the band “live.” We did it in two days. We’re old time travelers—we play time. [laughs] Pee Wee is a good player. They all are. Alec is amazing. His playing is really f***in’ cool. He really enjoys me and Abass; he’s got that same time thing.

MD: The spontaneity pays off.

Ginger: That’s because people take too long doing records. They’ve got all these silly things they play with.

MD: Was your decision not to include a chordal instrument in the band a conscious choice so that the drumming would be more prominent?

Ginger: Noooo, no. It just happened. It’s not the first time it’s been done, for Christ’s sake. I was playing in my jazz days with a tenor, bass, and drums lineup.


MD: How do you manage the pain when playing?
Ginger: I feel it before and after. I don’t notice it when I’m playing.


MD: It lets the two drummers become more central, though.

Ginger: Well, yeah. African drums and Western drums—it’s a mixture. That’s why I use Abass. He and I have been working together six years now. We just enjoy playing together, you know. It’s that West African feel.

MD: There are a lot of feels overlapping—the swing and African feels straddling each other.

Ginger: Jazz music is really all 12/8. They write it in 4/4, but it’s really 12/8, isn’t it?

MD: Back in the ’60s, Art Blakey felt it was necessary to go to Africa to fully absorb African rhythms. How did your own long period of living and playing in Africa change your idea of drumming and rhythm?

Ginger: It never changed it at all. It’s just something that I naturally felt.

MD: No influence at all?

Ginger: No, no, no. I was listening to African stuff in 1960. I didn’t get to Africa until 1970. I was hanging out with [Ghanaian percussionist] Guy Warren in the 1960s. There’s lots of Africans in England. I just always wanted to go to Africa, and I had a very good time there. So I wasn’t going there for a specific musical goal.

MD: On “Twelve and More Blues,” you play swinging, fun, melodic phrases, answering the rest of the band. It’s like a nod to Max Roach.

Ginger: That’s Pee Wee’s song. I think it’s very humorous. But I always played like that.

MD: Several of your own compositions are featured. How do you write?

Ginger: I use the keyboard.

MD: That’s interesting, since you don’t use a chordal instrument once you perform those tunes. It must make for a special approach.

Ginger: Oh, does it? [laughs] You analysts drive me up a wall—trying to analyze things. It doesn’t really happen like that at all. Ornette Coleman didn’t have a piano player. He just had Billy Higgins and Charlie Haden. So it’s nothing new.

MD: Any future projects possible beyond your current band?

Ginger: I don’t know. I’m getting old. I don’t know how long I’m going to be playing, to be honest. We don’t do a great long set now, because I can’t handle it.

MD: The drumset is a very physical instrument. It takes a toll.

Ginger: Yeah, it is for an old bloke like me. I hate traveling; it’s a nightmare for me. It’s my arthritis, that’s the problem. My whole spine is f***ed, and all my joints—it’s a very painful situation.

MD: Ho do you manage the pain when you’re playing?

Ginger: I feel it before and after. I don’t notice it when I’m playing.

MD: How old are you?

Ginger: Too f***in’ old, seventy-four. [Baker turned seventy-five this past August 19.]

MD: Your drumming still sounds young.

Ginger: Yeah, it’s a miracle I can still play. But it seems I can.