Ginger Baker Jazz Confusion

Live Review | Theatre Royal, York | Review and Photo by Allan Wilkinson

Known to most as the wildly animated blur behind the drums of sixties supergroup Cream and to others as the ill-tempered old rocker, shrouded in a thick blanket of contempt for those he sees as lesser beings, Ginger Baker is, undoubtedly, a living legend. Recently, Baker’s fifty year career has been scrutinised by a candid autobiography, 2009’s Hellraiser as well as an equally revealing feature-length documentary, 2012’s Beware of Mr Baker. Each document makes for uneasy digestion. Both tell the tale of a dangerously volatile and altogether unlikeable human being who has been known to prompt the most docile of music journalists to roll up their sleeves and offer a fist fight. They paint a picture of a man who would rather break your nose than sign your souvenir programme.

Tonight, Mr Baker took to the stage of the York Theatre Royal with his Jazz Confusion – a quartet of seasoned players – to perform two brief sets of hand-picked jazz classics. With not a single “Strange Brew” or “Sunshine of Your Love” in sight, the seventy-four year old, silver-haired and somewhat fragile ghost of that once flamboyant showman fired the engine of a performance packed with the melodies and rhythms of Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins and Ron Miles. He did so in spite of poor health and a bitterness brought on by what he referred to as “the coldest place I’ve ever been!” Indeed, the frosty York autumn only added to the lines in Baker’s frown, having just returned from a balmy twenty-show sell-out tour of the United States. It was, as he commented, “like jumping into a cold swimming pool!”

Baker was joined by American saxophonist and former member of James Brown’s band Pee Wee Ellis, supreme bassist and member of British jazz royalty Alec Dankworth and dazzling Ghanaian percussionist Abass Dodoo. Each musician was offered generous spotlight time by their leader – Ellis with his sinuous sax lines during Shorter’s “Footprints” and his own composition “Twelve and More Blues”; Dankworth’s air-thickening bass runs and arresting chords on Ron Miles’s “Ginger Spice” and Dodoo’s indefatigably explosive conga and cymbal playing on the Sonny Rollins classic “St Thomas.” Baker himself proved that his drumming can still be as fiery as his temperament, especially during performances of the mesmerising Lagos folk tune “Aiko Biaye” and his own composition “Ain Temouchant”, a tune inspired by a village in which Baker landed in a tree having driven his car off a mountain.

The pitifully small audience was, by the end of the evening, so enthralled by the sparks bouncing off the stage that they showed their appreciation by jumping to their feet, which is more than Ginger himself could muster. After a visibly exhausting encore performance of Baker’s Why? the living legend’s weary bones were carefully escorted off the stage and into the darkness by his right-hand man, Dodoo. And whilst the majority of York’s citizens missed their chance to see a man oft regarded as rock’s greatest drummer, a modest crowd of more canny rhythm-seekers left the Theatre Royal tonight with a shiny new memory to savor.