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Ginger Baker's Jazz Confusion in Bergheim

Phillip Woolever By

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Ginger Baker's Jazz Confusion
Medio.Rhein.Erft
Bergheim, Germany
November 27, 2015

Ginger Baker looked a bit stiff in his casual shades, but he sure as hell got the job done with unique style. He had people clapping and yelling their approval by around the two-minute mark and from then onward. Too bad there was no photography allowed, because this was a picture of precision.

"I'm so old I think I'm getting dementia and will forget how to play," said Baker, only half joking. That's highly unlikely. Baker hit his sticks a few times during early crossover rolls and though he dropped one he caught the next, and never looked back. He appeared very talented and very human.

The concert presented content from Why (Motema 2014), the band's only album so far but hopefully not their last. Most songs followed a pattern of solos by Pee Wee Ellis on sax, Alec Dankworth on bass, then, in near-matching orange embroidered shirts; a finishing flurry by Baker and percussionist Abass Dodoo pounding away. Baker, behind a black kit with seven skins, eleven cymbals, never took a solo, but the entire show was a master class in building beats.

They opened with a warm-up of Wayne Shorter's "Footprints," and did it justice as the soundboard got adjusted. Ellis wasn't yet at his sharpest, but he did add some tender touches of blue, and while Dankworth's initial upright tones had too deep a reverb, the band maintained a solid sense of the song.

All cylinders were firing by Ellis's fine "Twelve and More Blues." When Dankworth switched to electric bass for "Ain Temouchant" the bottom line got a lot better. Dodoo was a delight with his palms, fingers and fists on goblet type drums and smaller cymbals.

Prior to an excellent take on Ron Miles' "Ginger Spice," Baker announced an upcoming intermission. "After this I really do need a break," said Baker, smiling with resolve and breathing hard when he spoke between numbers. Still, he got down to some heavy pedal footwork, while Ellis proved he is a master of nuance and Dankworth hit some deep grooves.

Ellis seemed to grow stronger as the performance progressed. He muffled some early coughs and looked weary at first, but as he played his face grew into a bittersweet smile and he rose from his chair more than he sat on it.

After the break, Baker paid tribute to a departed old friend with "Cyril Davis." Before "Aiko Baye" Baker joked about his own limited mortality. There was a sense of sincerity but also some 'told you so' design when Baker mused, "If I go in the middle of this, remember, I want to be buried at sea." He and Dodoo shared some great, extended phonic phrases that put a hypnotic bop into the assembly and peaked at the finale. A beaming Dodoo lead a sing-along chant of Baker's name for an encore while the headliner caught his breath just off stage.

After making a comical strolling return, Baker sounded vulnerably serious, never like a reputed or hyped hell raiser to beware of. "I'm seventy-six and struggle to play sometimes. I really appreciate you coming tonight. Thank you for that."

The show was part of a four-city tour and provided a good, current millennium example of what Baker has been up to lately, sandwiched between a pair of London blasts from the past with the Jack Bruce tribute in October and Air Force re-ignition in December.

Any questions about how Baker's show ended up in a relatively secluded locale when there are much larger markets in nearby Dusseldorf or Cologne might have been answered upon seeing the interesting venue with multi-wooden walls, located in an artistic commercial district. Bergheim reportedly dates back to 4000 BC, with picturesque architecture hundreds of years old. Open just over a decade, the Media.Rhein.Erft structure has become a cultural mainstay.

There was no confusion here about whether or not Baker's brief but potent 75—minute set provided a great night of progressive, percussive jazz. There was a rewarding, communal feeling as most people yelled "Why?" with little prompting during that encore song.

It was a very good time and a very good question. Everybody knew the words and the cadence. Nobody knew the answer.

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