In 1994, Ginger Baker released a jazz trio album that represented a radical but welcome departure from the heavy blues rock he had pioneered as a member of Cream. Yet the record — Going Back Home — was in many ways a return to form. Baker, the British drummer who died Sunday at the age of 80, grew up playing jazz and had always considered himself to be a jazz musician at his core, even as he came to epitomize the brash freedom of rock & roll. Bassist Charlie Haden (who died in 2014) and guitarist Bill Frisell, who had long admired Baker’s nimble rhythmic approach, rounded out the Ginger Baker Trio. Frisell, now 68, spoke with Rolling Stone about Baker’s inimitable style, his indelible legacy, and his famously gruff personality.
Fifty years ago, I graduated from high school, and I think that’s the year I went to see Cream play in Denver. It was an incredibly intense time — I was falling in love with music pretty hard. Around the same time is when I first heard Jimi Hendrix, and I heard Miles Davis, and I heard Ginger. All that was happening at once. So [Ginger’s sound] was deep down in my DNA. Like, nobody sounded like that. It wasn’t how the drums were tuned or anything, but it was that touch, and the way he placed the beat; the feel of it was so extraordinary. If you had told me then that someday I would actually be playing with him, I would never have believed you.
My friend Chip Stern produced [the first Ginger Baker Trio record] and really got the whole thing together. For years, he had this dream of putting me and Charlie and Ginger together. I think Charlie had met Ginger briefly, and I didn’t really know him at all. I had met him in the late Eighties at a jazz festival — someone pushed us together and he shook my hand. But it was literally a few seconds. So it was an arranged marriage.
It was very intense for me. I go to Los Angeles and I walk into the studio. Luckily, I had played with Charlie, so at least I knew him, and I knew Chip. But it was amazing walking into the studio. I go in there — I have my guitar — and Ginger is setting up his drums, and he’s smoking a cigarette, and there’s already a bunch of cigarette butts all over the floor. He’s just kind of grunting and groaning, setting up the drums. I’m pretty nervous. I’m like, Oh shit, what have I gotten myself into? So I just walk up to him; I have to introduce myself. I said, Hi Ginger, I’m Bill. I’m the guitar player. And he didn’t say much. Oh, OK, yeah. There was no hugging or anything like that.
But then we set up and we start playing, and suddenly it was just like three guys playing, and he just started smiling. It’s just incredible what music does. However many years ago this was — 25 years, I can’t believe it’s that long — it was just this instant bonding; an understanding [and] the way music just breaks down any kind of barrier. And there was this joy. We were really just playing, picking tunes like “Straight No Chaser.” And Ginger was so generous. We played his tunes; he played our tunes. And it just felt real honest in that way.
It wasn’t like I was hanging out with Ginger all the time, but my feeling from him was — Steve Winwood mentioned how sensitive he was — and to me his gruffness was more of a protective shell. What I was seeing was this true love of the music, and you can’t play like that if you’re not sensitive. It’s not about loud or soft; he was listening and he had a tone. He had his own sound. He was listening like crazy. There’s a sensitivity; you wouldn’t call him fragile, but sometimes you gotta find a way to protect that thing, and I think on the surface that’s what people would see. When I watched that documentary [Beware of Mr. Baker], everybody’s talking about, “Oh yea, he did this or he did that or he hit this guy,” but when I saw it, what I kept seeing was, Wow, check out his love for music. The music was so important that he was trying to protect it. It means so much to you and it’s hard to describe; you feel like you’re being invaded. And I just felt that from Ginger.
So I witnessed some gruff stuff, but I never saw him punch anyone out or anything. And his sense of humor — he was doing these limericks over and over, like [he had an] endless incredible memory for all that stuff. They were just pouring out of him; it was unbelievable. [Later] somebody told me a limerick, and I remember calling him on the phone and I recited it to him, and it totally flipped him out.
A couple of years ago, I saw a concert of Cream from around the time that I saw them when I was in high school. So much stuff was happening at that time, the way boundaries were being crossed, and things were opening up, and it just struck me — the chemistry between those three guys, the way they were pushing up against each other, or trusting each other. I’m just talking about within the music. They would take these chances and jump way out. Going back and hearing that again, it really was a gigantic reminder of what that was. There’s a lot of tension and uncertainty — all these things are happening in the music to allow it to be out on this edge of where you don’t quite know what’s going to happen next. And then Ginger is like a safety net around the whole thing. He’ll push you off the edge and then he’ll come and get you just before you’re going to hit the ground. He’ll play something that will bring it back around.
And I try to always be in that place with my own bands. The most thrilling thing is, whether you’re with someone you’ve played with a million times or someone you’re meeting for the first time, you gotta trust each other, and it’s not about a contest or anything; it’s like you try to let the person you’re with be free and then it’s everybody’s job to rescue everyone else. So it was so great that it was just the three of us. The first record, in particular, was kind of a jam session. It was like, “Hello, let’s just play.” The music became the conversation; it’s like you meet somebody and you start talking and you realize you’ve got a whole bunch of stuff in common, and you lose yourself. You don’t have to think.
We did a second record. That was more of a challenge. He actually came up to Seattle to do it. Right before that recording, he fell off his roof. The record is called Falling off the Roof, and right before he came, he was doing some work on his house, and he fell off. I can’t believe the stuff that his body went through. He’d have his teeth in a glass. That was wild. There’s Ginger Baker’s teeth. So he was in some pain for the whole recording, and he was also probably taking some medication for that. It was Charlie again, which was great, and Jerry Hahn played guitar. Bela Fleck played on it. But it was a little more complicated. There were people coming in and out, and Ginger was in pain. And everybody had come from very far away to play in this studio. So it was more difficult.
The last time I saw Ginger, I was playing in Denver, and this is when he was still living outside Denver and really into polo. [I was playing with] Ron Miles and Rudy Royston at the Ogden Theater, and Ginger came to that gig to see us. That’s where he met Ron and Rudy, and those guys ended up playing with him. So Ginger started up a Colorado band with Ron, and they’d play at this polo place, and Ginger would say, I’ve gotta go ride my horse or something, and then Rudy would come and play drums.
We only did one live gig, in Frankfurt, in 1995. So we didn’t really keep in touch. I remember talking to him on the phone a couple of times, and then he had all this trouble and moved away from Colorado, and when he left Colorado, I really lost touch with him. He was really into the horse thing, you know?
There were a few moments when we were playing when I felt like, I must be dreaming. That’s the thing I try to hang onto. Those moments when I was young and you’d get that rush, the joy of music. And so playing with Ginger, it was like I had this direct line — like you’d plug into an electrical current, directly into the main source of what got you going in the first place.