His glassy blue eyes locked in laser focus, Ginger Baker stares from the cover of his first album in 16 years, cigarette smoke curled around his weathered face. It’s an intimidating gaze in keeping with the man who once posted “Beware of Mr. Baker” outside his home and wielded his cane to smash the nose of the director filming a 2012 documentary of the same name. The album title Why? seems ironic given the legendary drummer’s disdain for fielding open-ended questions.
Despite his reputation as a cantankerous interview subject, with his new album and a tour that brings his quartet Jazz Confusion to the Wilbur Theatre on June 29, the 74-year-old Baker agreed to talk from his new home in Canterbury, England.
Most people know him from rock supergroup Cream, with Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce, although that pioneering trio lasted only two years in the late ’60s. “It’s like a f—ing albatross around my neck,” Baker says, though he shares pride in the music and satisfaction with Cream’s 2005 reunion shows, something not likely to ever happen again. “No chance, no way,” he says. “We did it.”
What Baker mainly did before and after Cream was jazz. He dismisses the label of rock drummer, though he influenced countless players in that field. Neither is he keen on mulling how jazz, and then African music, came naturally to a red-headed Englishman, or what it was about the drums that made sense to him from the moment he jumped behind a kit as a teenager at a party. “It doesn’t make any sense at all,” he says. “You have to be f—ing insane to play the drums!”
Baker says he hasn’t sat at his kit to practice in 30 years. “Once you can play what you feel, what’s the point of practicing? You practice to do something, and then when you get on a gig, you want to play [that] and show how clever you are. It’s usually got nothing to do with what the other guys are playing. Just listen to the other guys. That’s how we all play.”
That instinctual interplay holds true in Jazz Confusion, which includes saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis (from James Brown’s seminal ’60s band), bassist Alec Dankworth and African percussionist Abass Dodoo. “I’ve been working with Abass for several years now, and we really click,” Baker says. “Alec is my favorite bass player of all time. He fits with me and Abass like a glove. And Pee Wee’s playing his ass off.”
The band shifts from jazz standards like Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” and Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas” to the adapted Nigerian folk tune “Aiko Biaye” and originals on Why? When Baker locks into polyrhythmic currents with Dodoo’s hand drums, their natural, synchronized pulse recalls Baker’s onetime pairing with drummer Tony Allen in Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti’s Africa ’70 group, as well as Baker’s drum battles with his jazz heroes Elvin Jones and Art Blakey during the ’70s.
“They all became really good friends of mine—they accepted me at their level,” Baker says, sharply adding, “We never had drum battles. [That’s] some American lunacy. We had drum duets. That’s what it’s all about in Africa, drummers playing together and working together, creating sounds together. Drum battles are like saying, ‘I’ve got a better technique than you. Ha, ha, ha!’ That’s a lot of crap.”
Baker still holds his own at the kit, although he battles pain from degenerative osteoarthritis of the spine. “It’s all right when I’m playing—it’s when I stop,” says Baker, who’s embarking on a 10-city North American tour. “I loathe and detest traveling. I enjoyed it in the old days. I don’t enjoy it anymore.”
It’s a wonder he got past those days, which included many heroin relapses, desert driving mishaps and political feuds in Nigeria that forced him to close the studio he built there. Once he rode a swivel chair down a flight of stairs to record the sound. At interview’s end, on the subject of his first Boston show since the ’90s, one can sense the gruff old man grinning as he barks, “If I survive that long!”
Ginger Baker’s Jazz Confusion plays the Wilbur Theatre on June 29.