It’s hard to dispute Ginger Baker’s status as a rock icon. Unless you’re Ginger Baker, that is. “Oh for god’s sake, I’ve never played rock,” the drummer, who turns 80 today, said testily during a 2013 interview. “Cream was two jazz players and a blues guitarist playing improvised music. We never played the same thing two nights running. … It was jazz.”
Baker’s history with jazz dates back to the mid-Fifties, when he began playing in British Dixieland-revival groups and absorbing the influence of American bebop masters like Charlier Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Max Roach (who eventually became a “great friend”). Later, he studied with U.K. jazz drumming great Phil Seaman and played heavily jazz-tinged R&B with the Graham Bond Organisation.
But it wasn’t until around 40 years later — long after he’d revolutionized rock with Cream, collaborated with everyone from Fela Kuti to Public Image Ltd., and squared off both verbally and musically with legendary jazz drummer Elvin Jones — that Baker formed his own full-on jazz band. Joining him in the group were two master improvisers: Bill Frisell, a highly influential guitarist known for his rootsy, genre-blurring style, and Charlie Haden, a brilliant bassist also steeped in Americana, who worked with everyone from Ornette Coleman to Pat Metheny during his five-decade-plus career. Above you can see the trio playing “I Lu Kron,” a gorgeously moody Baker original from their excellent 1994 debut, Going Back Home. Baker’s subtle swing feel suits the piece perfectly and gives Frisell plenty of room to stretch out.
“I’ve never had a style — I play to what I hear, so whoever I’m playing with, what they play has a great influence on what I play, because I listen to what people are playing,” Baker said of his drumming philosophy on a 2013 episode of The Jazz Show With Jamie Cullum.
Reviewing Going Back Home in Rolling Stone, Steve Futterman wrote that “More than a quarter century after Cream called it a day, Baker has delivered his masterwork.” The drummer would release one more album with Frisell and Haden, 1996’s Falling Off the Roof, followed by another jazz date, 1999’s Coward of the County, with a different, Denver-based lineup. His most recent studio album, 2014’s Why?, found him leading a small jazz combo featuring saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, bassist Alec Dankworth, and Ghanaian percussionist Abass Dodoo, and playing in a loose, unhurried style all his own.
“Time moves differently with Ginger,” Frisell once told Rolling Stone. “You could find 100 drummers to play the same tune, and Ginger would find something different to do with it.”