When Ginger Baker died Sunday at the age of 80 after years of ill health, the rock era lost its first real superstar drummer.
Mind you, Baker would’ve absolutely hated having his name tied to anything rock — in death and he did in life — despite having made his notoriety, initially, with the genre’s first power trio and supergroup, Cream, in 1966, followed by Blind Faith in 1969.
Like jazz drummers Louie Bellson and Rufus Jones long before him, Baker was a proponent of the double-bass drum sound, and turned the jazz tradition of rolling, raging thunderous solos, a la Max Roach and Art Blakey, into a heavy rock staple. Baker was known for everything from Dixieland to blues, fusion, Afrobeat, free jazz, post-punk and more. Focus on rock while dealing with him, and you could get a caning such as the one that the drummer famously gave film director/acolyte Jay Bulger during his 2012 documentary “Beware of Mr. Baker.”
“Your problem is that you’re putting me in a little box with little labels,” Baker said to me from his home in the Southern English countryside in 2014 on the occasion of discussing “Why?,” his first album in 16 years, and the debut recording of his Jazz Confusion quartet. “I just play the drums.”
Here are some hidden gems of Baker… just playing the drums.
Graham Bond Organization, “Wade in the Water” from “The Sound of ‘65” (1965)
Though the lion’s share of its tight, horny solos were given over to organist/leader Bond and saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith, Baker and soon-to-be Cream partner Jack Bruce crafted a set of swinging jazz/R&B rhythms with a sly sensualist feel to the proceedings. Nowhere is that more apparent than in their deeply grooving gospel approximation of the Ramsey Lewis classic.
Cream, “Sweet Wine” from “Live Cream, Vol. 1” (1970)
Bypass the Clapton/Bruce studio classics for the time being — from the cascading tom toms of “White Room” to the encyclopedia of snare sounds that was “Toad” — and focus on the live version of the Baker co-penned “Sweet Wine.” Though it’s an exercise in avant-psychedelia for all of its players, Baker finds his freest moment (15 minutes’ worth) and runs the voodoo down with manic energy, primal instinct, and even an effortlessly inventive elegance to the hard proceedings.
Blind Faith, “Well All Right” from “Blind Faith” (1969)
Mention Baker and Blind Faith and everyone points to the overlong and over-stuffed “Do What You Like,” which inexplicitly takes up 16-plus minutes of their only album’s real estate. May we put forth the sprightly joys of their take on “Well All Right,” the Jerry Allison/Buddy Holly/Norman Petty classic? Baker’s high-hat rides and sweetly soulful propulsion take an ordinary pop shout-along and turns it into something holy rolling. One of Baker’s best, and simplest, moments.
Ginger Baker’s Air Force, “Da Da Man” from “Ginger Baker’s Air Force” (1970)
While the album itself featured scores of Baker’s old cronies (Bond, WInwood, mentor Phil Seaman) and new ones (drummers Remi Kabaka and Teddy Osei), this first track introduces the solo Baker to the world, and with it, his mash-up vision of psychedelic soul, hypnotic African grooves and off-kilter free jazz. For all of its madness and messiness, this avatar of world beat is gentle in its use of cool breezy flutes and gently layered percussion.
Fela Kuti, “Ikoyi Mentality Versus Mushin Mentality” from “Why Black Man Dey Suffer” (1971)
Baker worked with and produced African legend Fela Kuti before and after this record, but nothing better portrays the trance-inducing yet busily provocative elements of their percussive meeting than this steamy, horn-driven track.
Baker Gurvitz Army, “4 Phil” from “The Baker Gurvitz Army” (1974)
If you ever wondered what would happen if Clyde Stubblefield and Bill Bruford got together in a prog-rock/Southern-funk showcase, go no further than this track from Baker’s dramatic debut disc with brothers Adrian and Paul Gurvitz. Formerly of the Gun, the Gurvitzes, with Baker, created a cerebral equivalent of the theatrical glam sound that was happening all around them without losing the sweaty, hypnotic soul groove of the drummer’s African excursions.
Hawkwind, “Who’s Gonna Win the War” from “Levitation” (1980)
Anyone missing Baker’s thunder-god routine from Cream could have found it with double the production rumble when the drummer joined forces with the epic space-metal rocking Hawkwind. Though there are several sterling rhythm section workouts to behold on this disc, “Who’s Gonna Win the War” has the most bass drum-riding heft.
Public Image Ltd, “Ease” from “Album” (1986)
“FFF” and “Home” are the better songs with deeper Baker beats on this overly clean Bill Laswell-produced album from PIL’s John Lydon and top tier session cats such as Ryuichi Sakamoto and Steve Vai. But the drummer’s contribution is best heard in his signature scrabbled shuffle for “Ease,” the album’s most cluttered track. Oddly enough, it manages to be a sexy respite in the middle of a bland metal morass.
Ginger Baker, “Ginger Spice” from “Why? (2014)
Though originally recorded on his “Coward of the County” album, the modal marvel that is “Ginger Spice,” penned by Ron Miles, is pure, straight-ahead jazz drumming at its most formidable and even elegiac. Like the similarly modal blues of Wayne Shorter’s “Footprint” on “Why?,” you can hear Baker in love, and at ease, with his quietly intuitive interplay with bassist Alec Dankworth, saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis and percussionist Abas Dodoo. Baker’s groove is so natural, quietly complex and sad, it’s almost like hearing the rhythm of a teardrop.