What Was That? That Was Jazz
At 73 years of age, Ginger Baker isn’t the double bass-drum oscillator he used to be, but the African beats he deployed throughout his jazz set at The Phoenix, Exeter, last night – aided and abetted with a compensatory gusto by Ghanian percussionist Abass Dodoo [who would have thought cymbals could at times make such a distinctive and glorious contribution?] – reflected a continued love of playing live as well as for that genre.
With further assistance from the wonderful saxophone tone of Pee Wee Ellis [having played for the James Brown Revue between 1965 to 1969, and contributing to no less than 13 albums with Van Morrison] and Alec Dankworth, perhaps the most outstanding soloist of the night on double and electric bass, it was an evening of highly enjoyable jazz penned by Baker himself and the likes of Wayne Shorter and Sonny Rollins, all underscored by the aura of getting to see one of the great rock musicians/drummers of all time.
As someone most recently in the press because of the new film documentary about him titled Beware Of Mr Baker - but more notoriously when he breaks filmmaker Jay Bulger’s nose with his cane - and also widely available video footage of a rather cantankerous recent interview session, the only indication of such bad behaviour last night was when someone in the audience shouted out either a request or a heartfelt accolade and Ginger pricked up with a mildly aggressive ‘What was that?’ and immediate threat to have ‘hecklers’ dealt with in some punitive way: all indicative of the fact that after years of thunderous drumming, Ginger Baker can’t hear what is being shouted at him. Overall, he actually seemed to be enjoying himself, proffering a mild giggle as Pee Wee slowly walked behind him having too slowly walked off the stage before the encore and thus being significantly behind the rest of the returned band – and with Ginger’s pace at 73 hardly [wait for it] gingerly, you can imagine how desultory Pee Wee was ambling.
It was that kind of night: an audience whose seniority reflected maturity, wisdom, bad backs and other ailments, hair-loss and a multitude of unrealised dreams of rock stardom and a life of debauchery that Ginger Baker has passed through with some undoubted pain but considerable if crotchety resilience to arrive at this plateau of jazzy reverence and relative calm. For me it was a night of consistently enjoyable music by a great man I never got to see in his prime but feel I have now seen pursuing his great love of jazz music, having always, apparently, referred to himself as a jazz rather than rock drummer. Where many stars hit the tours churning out their familiar hits [and that's OK too] it was reassuring to see this notorious survivor of the sixties doing so engagingly in his seventies.