REVIEW: Ginger Baker at the Jazz Café

Ginger Baker at the Jazz Café
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2018. All Rights Reserved


Ginger Baker
(Jazz Café, 3 April 2018. Review and drawings by Geoff Winston)

Ginger Baker has never lost his musical vision. At its core is jazz, going right back to his early-’60s roots when he played with Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated and the Graham Bond Organisation and then the '90s when he notably teamed up with jazz giants, Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden, for two albums and marvellously nuanced live work (video of this group from 1993 below).




In recent times he's been dogged by ill health, to which he referred with characteristic wry humour, glossing over the detail by mentioning 'out of world experiences', thereby 'recusing' himself, which prompted laughter of recognition from certain quarters of the room. This did not prevent him from making a spirited comeback, after a year's absence from live work, at his regular London venue, the Jazz Café, with his well-established quartet, Jazz Confusion, comprising sax supremo and arranger, Pee Wee Ellis, Alec Dankworth on string and electric basses ('my favourite bass player') and Ghanaian maestro percussionist, Abass Dodoo, with whom he has a long association .

In the notes to his 1998 album, Coward of the Country, he stated that the two great loves of his life were 'jazz and polo', and that his 'drum heroes who became dear friends' were Phil Seamen, Art Blakey, Max Roach and Elvin Jones. During that pre-Cream crossover period where jazz met blues, he recounted how he, Jack Bruce and Johnny Parker shared the bill with Mick Jagger and Brian Jones in a small club in 1962, and how he recommended Charlie Watts to them.

They kicked off with Ellis's Twelve and More Blues, with composer and Dankworth leading in with a spiky, Monk-like prelude with Baker 's dynamic response picking up on its melodic structure. Ellis took off on the first of several sublime solos with soulful, fast-flowing phrasing which Dankworth met with a classic, solid, string bass spot. Baker interjected bursts of percussive drive, linking tight with Dodoo which, judging from his broad smile, he clearly enjoyed as he got in to his stride.

Ain Temouchant, inspired by Baker's experience of his motor accident on the Atlas Mountains where his Jensen landed atop an olive tree, was carried along and held together by Dankworth's powerful electric bass line, giving space to Ellis's wailing sax.

Baker's signature style, both arms in parallel vertical motion, bubbled up throughout. His innate skill in handling rhythmic intricacies shone through in Ron Miles's Ginger Spice. In tandem with Dodoo, African-derived rhythms, metallic chimes and Baker's all-sticks assault on the array of cymbals flowed, and in the devastatingly energetic percussion duet which followed he pushed himself to the limit. "That's just about done me in," he joked breathlessly, but not before running through his tribute to early mentor and harp-player, Cyril Davies, where Dodoo's maracas met electric bass and Baker's synched beats on the snares, after which he called it a day, leaving the trio to tie it up with Ellis leading the loose jam in Don't Stop the Carnival style.

"Great flair". Dylan Jones of Pyjaen
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2018. All Rights Reserved

First on were Pyjaen (ex-Vice), with an impressive set, bringing jazz-funk and a whole lot more well in to the twenty-first century. Disciplined, imaginative, brimming with energy and ideas, these five alumni of Trinity Laban Conservatoire gelled as a unit, yet shone individually. Dylan Jones on trumpet showed great flair with his sophisticated phrasing and technique, a foil to Ben Vize's assertive sax, band spokesperson Dani Deodato's chunkily funky guitar strains and the fine bass and drum work of Ben Crane and Charlie Hutchinson, respectively.

From start to finish, a great evening's music.

Afterword
In a fascinating interview with Alexis Korner for Rolling Stone in 1971, Korner sheds further light on the early days of the British Blues Boom and fleshes out Baker's anecdote.
"Ginger Baker was a jazz player, so were Dick Heckstall-Smith, Graham Bond and Johnny Parker. From different schools perhaps, but all jazz players. ... Technically, Blues Incorporated was the first professional British blues band. We were playing electric stuff by then and Cyril and me were getting thrown out of perfectly respectable jazz clubs for doing so." ... Cyril Davies split from Korner and formed his own band, the All Stars. From then on Blues Incorporated was kept fresh with a steady infusion of personnel. ... There was a "nervous" Charlie Watts on drums, Dick Heckstall-Smith on saxophone, Jack Bruce on bass. And for six months in 1961, Mick Jagger. ... By the time Mick got in touch with me, Cyril Davis and I had been playing blues stuff up at the Round House, a pub in Soho, which we'd got going as the London Blues and Barrel House club for a couple of years. ... Charlie was still working in an advertising agency, he was too scared to go pro with us, so we started auditioning drummers and we got Ginger in instead of Charlie, and it was shortly after that when Cyril and I agreed to part company."

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