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Ginger Baker's Jazz Confusion at Yoshi's

Harry S. Pariser By

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Ginger Baker's Jazz Confusion
Yoshis
Oakland , CA
June 15, 2014

Dedicated. Stubborn. Outspoken. Perspicacious. These are some of the descriptions which come to mind when considering the personality and legacy of legendary drummer Ginger Baker. Baker first came to prominence as a member of the rock power trio Cream, with guitarist Eric Clapton and bassist Eric Clapton, establishing himself as a role model for many an aspiring teenage rock drummer. Later, he joined the super group Blind Faith, while his African Air Force group had, as a member, Phil Seamen—a British jazz drummer who had had a profound influence on Baker's playing. Known for his flamboyant percussive techniques, Baker employed two bass drums—an arrangement used by drummer Louie Bellson when he was working with Duke Ellington.

Many years after his last album, Baker has released Why? (Motéma, 2014) and embarked on an international tour to bring it to the public. For Baker—who suffers from severe arthritis in tandem with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)—these dates are always a challenge. For this appearance at Yoshi's in Oakland, Baker (wearing shades and a blue shirt) took the stage with his current quartet.

Entering with Ghanaian percussionist Abass Dodoo, Baker seated himself at his formidable drum set, which sported some 12 cymbals, and began to play. Bassist Alec Dankworth stood stage right, while legendary tenor saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis took the stage on Baker's left. While Dankworth has played with the likes of Mose Allison and Abdullah Ibrahim, Ellis is famous for his collaborations with (among others) James Brown and Van Morrison. All joined in the first tune, which turned out to be Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" (the evening's sole jazz cover), beginning with congas and drums in lockstep as Ellis and then Dankworth soloed.

Up next was Ellis' "12 and More Blues," which featured yet more great tenor work from the saxophonist and a lovely solo from Dankworth. Baker took us, as he explained, on "a trip to the Atlas Mountains of Algeria, where I drove my car off a cliff and landed in a village called Ain Temouchant." "Ain Temouchant" began with a Dankworth solo, interposed by an Arab-themed saxophone solo. Trumpeter Ron Miles' "Ginger Spice," the last song before the break (which came at the 40-minute mark), produced a formidable wall of percussive sound and included another glorious Ellis solo, with Dodoo lashing out with his sticks on his stack of cymbals.

Baker reappeared with a cigarette in his mouth and sat down at the drums, jokingly telling the audience to "shut up," and then announced a "slow, tricky 12/8 blues called 'Cyril Davies,'" a tribute to the late British harmonicist. Commencing with just drums and shekere, a seated Ellis then blew a solo followed by Dankworth.

Next, Baker announced "an experiment." "We don't know what we are going to play, but we are going to play. See what you think." The ensemble launched into an extended jam featuring a lovely Dankworth bass solo.

Baker then told the audience: "We had to do two sets last night. It nearly killed me. But I did not die on stage.... We are going to Lagos, Nigeria for a children's folk song." "Aiko Biaye"—from his Ginger Baker Air Force days but also featured on Why?—followed, incorporating a funky electric bass groove, with Ellis soloing fiercely amidst hard-hitting conga and cymbal work from Dodoo and Baker. It was all rather reminiscent of Santana.

Baker and his Jazz Confusion left the stage to a standing ovation. Dodoo returned to the stage and—after asking, "Do you want one more?"—tutored the audience in the Ginger Baker cheer made famous in the Beware of Mr. Baker documentary. Baker encored with the title track to Why?; marching in, swinging his arms in tin soldier-style military rhythm, the trademark lighted cigarette pressed between his lips, Baker explained that the song was about "the terrible things that happen to me." As could be seen, given the adulation that has greeted him throughout his career; it has not been all bad.

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