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Ginger Baker: Why?

Phillip Woolever By

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The most pleasant surprises on Ginger Baker's first mainstream release in almost a decade are subtle. That term may not be generally applied to the 74 year-old bohemian beat master, but restraint has been an unheralded constant in Baker's wide-ranging career nonetheless.

The relatively conservative approach goes against Baker's ongoing typecasting as a crazed rock drummer, an image vividly enhanced by the destructive anger and degradation portrayed in his recent autobiography Hellraiser, and the documentary Beware of Mr. Baker.

Somehow, despite the characterization, Baker obviously possesses enough self control and good fortune to have avoided the demise of ill-fated legends like Keith Moon or John Bonham, contemporaries who crashed and burned so spectacularly that they will never fade away in the classic rock annals.

Be such things as they may, it's the understated, even-handed nature of this project that nearly forms a cohesive masterwork. This is very nearly, but not quite, optimal jazz. For now, Baker and his legions must be content with the knowing that Why? was one of the best of releases of 2014, in any musical genre.

Baker's quartet, dubbed Jazz Confusion, does a remarkable job aligning jazz's golden past and traditional tomorrows, in lower keys with extraordinary depth.

A commendable foundation of this endeavor is an omnipresent hi-hat beat, maintained throughout the album like a metronome for the personal anthem, "Do What You Like," in Baker's head. Besides employing that title as an apparent lifestyle philosophy, similar song beats seem to permanently pound in Baker's pulse. Meandering measures quickly build with good reason, as evidenced by fluid flourishes that establish a pattern of traditional touchstones turned into bopping boulders.

Another nice touch features the ongoing, multilayered interaction between Baker and his complimenting, corresponding percussionist Abass Dodoo. The African collaborator places nicely nuanced bells and chimes over and under chords, as independent counterpoints to Baker's thudding statements. The sound and balance of their pinpoint percussion is excellently mixed on each piece.

That switched-up hi-hat heart beat comes through best on "Cyril Davis," one of two cuts from Baker's previous US release, Coward of the County (Atlantic, 1999), and one of his strongest compositions. The previous version mourned a departed mentor; this new arrangement brings Davis bopping back to life, and resurrects him grooving down misty streets of nostalgia. Dodoo does some sparkling work on rattles and finger bells.

The most general response to that most common question posed by the album's title has probably been, of course, why not? If there is a theme to Baker's current project, it is likely that. This is familiar territory for Baker, who jams along progressive percolation with Doodoo on a pair of brief solos. Dressed up, polyrhythmic pacing lets Baker play some timing tricks as he doffs his hi-hat again.

Baker has previously recorded most of Why's compositions in similar forms. On the majority of tracks here, Baker reconsiders the principals of percussion he began to illuminate during his post-rock period with his Air Force band. The title song is the disc's sole new offering, but the sound is fresh throughout. Baker remains an explorer who frequently returns to tribal-based origins. "Ginger Spice," is layered with levels of beats, like a cake, as the drums carry the theme over a relaxed horn from Pee Wee Ellis, the former sax force with James Brown.

The first evidence of bassist Alec Dankworth's thick bottom lines comes after another tasty sax intro on "Twelve and More Blues." Baker pounds along a running undercurrent, during a fine bass solo that finishes the final building blocks for Baker's initial solo. Most songs follow a pattern of rotating spotlights. Beside Baker's personal catalogue, the group tactfully tracks of a pair of giant steps by Wayne Shorter ("Footprints") and Sonny Rollins ("St. Thomas").

Summarily appropriate jams with Dodoo close the show, with "St.Thomas," rolling into the African traditional, "Aiko Biaye." Once again, that metronome-like hi-hat is a constant tease...and a constant lesson. "Cymballic," indeed? Why? may not be Baker's crowning achievement, but it sure is a mighty fine disc.

Track Listing: Ginger Spice; Twelve and More Blues; Cyril Davis; Footprints; Ain Temouchant; St. Thomas; Aiko Biaye; Why?.

Personnel: Ginger Baker: drums; Pee Wee Ellis: saxophone; Alec Dankworth: bass; Abass Doodoo: percussion; Kudzai and Linda Baker: vocals (8).

Title: Why? | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: Motema Music

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