|Photograph: Sasa Huzjak|
"But what I really wanted to do was play jazz" is a clichéd sentiment among successful rock musicians, particularly drummers. In his excellent autobiography, Bill Bruford writes about this desire, and how he fulfilled it for decades, with Earthworks and other projects. Neil Peart has made briefer and (in my opinion) less successful forays into jazz—the Burning for Buddy (Rich) tributes, as well as the hammy big-band homages that inevitably crop up in his solos.
Ginger Baker, a giant from a generation earlier, may have been the originator of this sentiment, as well as its most extreme exponent. As he crabbily explains in the fascinating recent doc Beware of Mr. Baker, despite his success with Cream, he doesn't consider himself a rock drummer; nor does he seem to respect any of the acknowledged masters in Cream's general (early, blues-based U.K. rock and roll) vicinity, your Bonhams and Moons. (For the record, I find his denigration of these two, and the general devaluation of rock mastery as a lesser skill than jazz virtuosity, to be pretty despicable; why do we need to dismiss one style to give another its due?) Baker's heroes are Blakey, Elvin and Phil Seamen, a player I don't know much about but take to be more or less the British Buddy Rich or Gene Krupa, without the worldwide fame.
Bruford and especially Peart have approached jazz with a certain humility, bowing as they've walked through the door. Baker has approached it with respect, but also (as he seems to approach everything) with cockiness and bravado. (See the famed drum battles with Blakey and others.) Lately, I've been listening to a fair amount of Ginger Baker playing jazz: on records such as 1999's Coward of the County (I also love Going Back Home with Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden but haven't revisited it in a while) and the brand-new Why?, and, last night, live at B.B. King's in Times Square. I'm of two minds about Baker's so-called jazz drumming: On one hand I'm pretty sure I wouldn't classify it as great jazz drumming, but on the other, I'm pretty sure that I love the way it sounds, which, to me, is far more important than whether or not it fulfills arbitrary, box-checking genre criteria. Unlike when, say, Neil Peart (please understand: one of my very favorite drummers when he's in his element) imitates Buddy Rich in earnest but clunky, almost caricatured fashion, Baker actually—as one might expect of such an ego-driven character—imposes himself on the style, so much so that what results isn't really classifiable as anything other than Ginger Baker Music.
His sonic fingerprints are all over Jazz Confusion, and in the end, that's the quartet's entire appeal. As you can hear on Why?, the group's M.O. is pretty straightforward, often flirting with blandness: ambling, midtempo versions of hoary standards such as "Footprints" or "Well You Needn't," or simple blues or African tunes from the Baker songbook (some his own, some written by sidemen, some traditional), performed in a sort of stubbornly laid-back style, with saxist Pee Wee Ellis as the likable but uncommanding lead soloist.
What saves the Confusion's music from slightness, though, is how completely it embodies Baker's affinities as a rhythmist. The music is his feel behind a set of drums, and the presence of an auxiliary percussionist, Ghanaian drummer Abass Dodoo—who's fully on Baker's wavelength—only drives home this point.
Baker's drumming is all about the sensation of drag—a feel of looseness that could be almost be described as willful lethargy—coupled with a fondness for stark, sing-songy gestures. A low terminal velocity; lot of simultaneous or flammed strikes on two wonderfully resonant toms, or a snare and a tom; a tendency to set up almost hokey, "shave-and-a-haircut"–style conversations between phrases, in a way that sometimes reminds me of the great Ed Blackwell; an obsession with the triplet feel (you hear a lot of shunk-dunk shunk shunka-da-dunka-da 6/8), and with the mindbending lattice that blooms before your ears when two percussionists (or two limbs of the same one) favor opposing accents.
But in a more general way, what you hear is this sort of stick-in-the-mud notion of how "jazz," or, really, music, ought to sound. Check out the concluding title track of Why? below. The head arrangement is so methodical, so stubbornly plodding, but listen to what happens around 1:10, when Baker switches to the ride and the groove opens up.
The man is swinging so hard he's practically stumbling through the streets. He sounds simultaneously stiff and liberated, and he knows exactly what he's doing. His playing moves and grooves, but it also just sort of squats at the center of the music, daring the other players to make way for him, to set their internal clocks by his own. "Twelve and More Blues" is another piece with this sort of exaggerated, taffylike bounce, a kind of buoyant ooze. The interaction of Baker and Dodoo draws the ear down to the music's murky bottom, its gluey drumminess. Ellis and bassist Alec Dankworth play their roles dutifully, but, and this is the key to the music, those roles are merely to help facilitate the rhythmic vibe, to put some meat on the bones, which are themselves the essence of the music.
I could listen to "Cyril Davis" all day, focusing on that glorious turnaround moment (it happens for the first time at :43) when Baker switches from the toms to the ride cymbal, shifting from one gloriously gummy pulse to another. There is a kind of heaven in this rhythmic laze, a decadence in stumbling from beat to beat, a control freak's approach to vegging out. If, in a certain sense, not a lot "happens" in the music of the Jazz Confusion, this principle—that of imparting at all times one's specific rhythmic signature—manifests in the music constantly. It's all this music is.
Jazz is an individual voice conversing with other individual voices. Maybe the reason why the music of the Confusion isn't, to my ears, great jazz, is that it's not so much about conversation as it is about subordination—everyone get on board with Baker's feel, in other words. But on its own terms, removed from the tedious discussion of jazz and rock—which is too often framed as a competition or rivalry—or of genre in general, I think the Jazz Confusion (both as a live band and on Why?) is a major success. Ginger Baker–ness seeps from the music's every pore, and that approach—personality into sound—is one avenue to worthwhile music. Jazz? Rock? African? Who cares. The band is him, period—this music couldn't come from anywhere else.
P.S. Props to the Baker Gurvitz Army. Just getting to know this project, but live clips such as this have me seriously intrigued, more so than by what I know of Baker's Air Force. Props also to Cream's Royal Albert Hall reunion gig, during which Baker's rhythmic stubbornness is on full display, alongside his ability to participate in a band of equals.