If drummer Ginger Baker’s staring into the abyss, he’s doing it with defiance and a good beat.
By Brett Milano
Ginger Baker didn’t die during his show at Boston’s Wilbur Sunday night. And that’s significant, because he reminded the audience a few times that his demise was a distinct possibility. “This could be the one that does it,” he said before one of the more upbeat numbers. He also left the stage, a mere five minutes into the show, and explained that “I’m a sick old man, so when I have to piss I’m going to.” And after saying that he’s been warned against touring, Baker noted there’s a competition underway to predict during which song at which show he’ll cash in his chips. “The first prize is a week in Manchester,” he said. “The second prize is two weeks in Manchester.”
So Baker’s reputation preceded him, both as a legendary drummer and a miserable crank (The latter comes mainly from a recent documentary film, Beware of Mr. Baker, and an attendant Rolling Stone profile). Baker’s ill health is no joke: He has COPD, a lung disease, and degenerative osteoarthritis in his back. All of which explained his retirement from drumming until he suddenly reappeared this year with Jazz Confusion — a quartet including Ghanian percussionist Abass Dodoo, bassist Alec Dankworth (son of British jazz figures Cleo Laine and John Dankworth) and Pee Wee Ellis, the saxophonist who was in James Brown ‘s band for the peak years (1965-69) and then spent 15 years with Van Morrison—hence he’s well acquainted with miserable cranks.
Baker hadn’t played Boston in decades; his last high-profile project – a reunion with Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce in the seminal power trio Cream — fell apart after shows (surprisingly good ones) in London and New York. So there was a house full of diehards on Sunday looking for a taste of his genius — and they got it, within reason. Baker’s stamina is not what it was, and though he stepped out a few times in tandem with Dodoo, he never played a true drum solo. It was the subtler touches that proved his powers were still there — especially the high-hat accents that he employed during Dankworth’s sections, turning the bass solos into intricate dialogues. Baker’s other trademark, his towering tom-tom fills, were also evident throughout, as were his sharp snaps on the snare. In the Confusion he’s got a solid jazz band that can hint at the rock and Afro-beat that Baker’s played in younger days.
Not surprisingly, he didn’t play any Cream or Blind Faith chestnuts, and he warned the audience early against shouting for those. Instead the full setlist was the eight songs on the quartet’s recent album Why?; a mix of standards and new pieces. The band swung with elegance on their opener, Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints,” where Ellis let some funky undertones slip through. A newer tune jokingly called “Ginger Spice” had a stronger backbeat that harked back to Cream’s “Toad.” The closest thing to a golden oldie was “Aiko Biaye,” a Yoruban traditional tune that Baker recorded with his Air Force band in 1971, and again a few years later with Fela Kuti. The new version was stripped-down, with Ellis replacing a full horn section, but the drum/conga duet had the power of old.
The encore had the night’s only vocal, if you can call it that: For the title tune of “Why?” Baker prompted the audience to shout out the title, explaining that it’s his response “to the catastrophes in my life, which continue to this day.” The tune was in fact enjoyably catchy, getting a jolt in energy whenever the shouts came around. If Baker’s staring into the abyss, he’s doing it with defiance and a good beat. And we could swear he broke into a wide grin more than once.
Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat.