Ginger Baker

Why?

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Though he may be physically frail due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and osteoporosis, Ginger Baker in his mid-seventies is still a drummer to be reckoned with. Why?, his debut offering for Motema Records -- and his first studio outing in 16 years -- features him in the company of his touring quartet of bassist Alec Dankworth, saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, and percussionist Abas Dodoo. The program is pure jazz. Two tunes here -- the modal "Ginger Spice" by Ron Miles, and his own blues "Cyril Davies" -- are revisioned workouts from his Coward of the County album, while his Algerian-tinged "Ain Temouchant" dates from his trio with Charlie Haden and Bill Frisell on Goin' Back Home. "Aiko Biaye" is a Nigerian folk song that was originally adapted by Ginger Baker's Air Force. Only the set's closing title track is "new." As is to be expected, drums are at the heart of every tune here. The interplay Baker enjoys with his longstanding percussionist Dodoo is down to the level of pure musical instinct. Circular rhythms go hand in hand with syncopation -- check the excellent reading of Wayne Shorter's mysterious modal blues "Footprint" as well as "Aiko Baye." One has seldom heard Ellis play it as straight as he does here. Despite his pedigree with James Brown and Van Morrison, Ellis sticks to his love of John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins throughout. His playing is physical yet economic and imaginative; particularly effective is his solo atop the interlocking rhythmic grooves on "Ginger Spice" and his big-boned, songlike break on Rollins' Caribbean-flavored stomp "St. Thomas." Baker's playing is spot on throughout. He showcases imagination and swing rather than firepower on Ellis' fine "Twelve and More Blues," where he first engages in fluid call-and-response with Dankworth, and then in an elastic dialogue with Dodoo. Likewise, his longer break on "St.Thomas" offers the spirit and creativity of his earliest work on the British jazz scene, albeit with a more seasoned textural flair. Closer "Why?" is the only place where heat and dynamic bubble over. Hinting at his work with Fela Kuti, a chanted female vocal chorus brings elements of bubbling Afro-funk to the fore even as Ellis quotes from "Wade in the Water" in the melody. It's a dramatic closer. Why? signals a welcome, rootsy, and classy return for Baker to recording, despite his notorious "Beware Mr. Baker" grimace in the cover photo.

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