Few musicians have lived the rock & roll lifestyle to the level of Ginger Baker and survived to tell the tale. The profile of the uber-talented jazz drummer from the early 60’s went interstellar when he formed supergroup Cream with Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton in 1966, and the famously drug-taking musician got to indulge every aspect to the rock lifestyle available – which he did to the hilt. The stories are spectacular, as his candid autobiography Hellraiser testifies, as well as Jay Bulger’s blistering 2013 documentary feature Beware of Mr Baker. The man had an exhilarating ride through fame and fortune, taking in a friendship with Jimi Hendrix, joining Steve Winwood and Clapton’s band Blind Faith, an extended expedition to Africa to learn the roots of his beloved percussive sounds and even an attempt at a Hollywood acting career, before getting back to what he does best with a triumphant Cream reunion at the Royal Albert Hall in 2005. In this time, his vast wealth has come and gone, and while he has left a lot of personal chaos in his wake, his rep as the world’s greatest drummer has rarely been questioned amongst his peers.
To see the man live in 2015 is to see a living legend – but it’s fair to say the rock days are in the past and it’s an accomplished jazz set you will see these days. His current band, Ginger Baker’s Jazz Confusion, consists of a seasoned quartet with himself on skins, a brilliant saxophone player, a gregarious African bongo player and a great bass player. Ginger himself introduces the tunes, but at 76, his voice is frail and he needs a little help getting on the stage these days. But what he does when he’s up there is still very impressive. His band round out the sound nicely and for jazz fans, the African influence on the music they make together is intriguing and atmospheric. Given the energy levels required for the elongated pieces, the man will play an 80 minute set with a break, himself acknowledging that he needs one after the frenetic first set. When they return to the stage, they hit a seriously impressive jazz mode, and after a long wait for the encore, they end on a crowd-pleasing, self-composed tune about all the woes in his life, appropriately titled ‘Why?’
The band played before a very receptive crowd at the sold out event at Nell’s Jazz and Blues in West London recently and, much like their appearance at Ronnie Scott’s 2 years ago, the stories in the crowd at the intermission were rife with what they’ve all heard of his personal antics. It’s as if they were cheering him on as much in celebration of his being one of rock’s bad men (and yet still touring into old age) as for the performance itself, if not more so. If you read about his personal life, you get the impression he’s still touring more as he needs the money than for the love of the music. At the time the film was made 2 years ago, he admitted that despite living in a fortified compound in Africa and owning a stable of thoroughbred horses (he loves polo), that he is completely broke. It will perhaps take a lot of gigs of this nature to pay for the upkeep of such a lifestyle, but it was a privilege to see a man who’s lived such a full life, still making a great sound once those sticks are in his hands.
Words> Roy Swansborough