Yes, drummer extraordinaire Ginger Baker became a brand name back in the days of Cream, Blind Faith, and Air Force. However, listening to Why?, Baker’s first album in 16 years, you’ll forget all that. Instead, you’re likely to feel you’re traveling to a time before fusion jazz when players and their acoustic instruments banded together in small “combos.” Back then, such ensembles showcased the likes of Bird, Dizzy, Monk, Coleman Hawkins, and Lester Young.
In this case, Baker’s “Jazz Confusion” features Baker, saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, bassist Alec Dankworth, and African percussionist Abass Dodoo. Not surprisingly, Ellis, who has worked with everyone from James Brown to Van Morrison to Senegalese singer Cheikh Lô to Malian legend Ali Farka Touré, is responsible for the lion’s share of the melody lines. On Why?, Ellis is a restrained front man, being improvisational without breaking into flights of extended experimental fantasy. Think Paul Desmond instead.
British double-bassist Dankworth brings a wealth of experience as well, having worked with the likes of Dave Brubeck, Mose Allison, Clark Terry, Mel Tormé, Anita O’Day, and his own stint with Van Morrison. While Ghanaian percussionist Dodoo is best known for his “One Drum” workshops and playing with the Royal Obonu Drummers, he is perfectly Sympatico with this cast of all-stars, providing the patterns and rhythms that add textures and flow to the eight tracks on Why?
Then, of course, there’s the reclusive Mr. Baker himself, clearly the man in the middle, the man around whom all the other musicians add their parts. Due to superlative mixing, all four players can be heard distinctly through all the compositions. All have space to be spotlighted and have their solos, but Baker gets more time at center stage. Happily, you can hear the full range of both percussionists as they are spread around the speakers with all drums and cymbals captured in crystal clear brilliance. Fear not—this is not a demonstration of flamboyant showmanship of stick technique and speed that would mainly interest fellow drummers. Baker isn’t playing “Toad” anymore. Rather, his solos are coordinated with what Dankworth and Dodoo are either driving or holding down, proving that carefully tuned drum heads are musical instruments and not just a means for time keepers to provide occasional fills.
Baker is the major composer for the album as well, including the humorous title song with its one word lyric. “Aiko Biaye” is a reworking of a song Baker first recorded with his Air Force back in 1970, this time without the Graham Bond vocals. Likewise, “Ain Temouchant” is a Baker composition he first recorded with the Ginger Baker Trio on 1994’s Going Back Home. Baker’s lovely tribute to British blues pioneer, “Cyril Davies,” punctuated by maracas and Latin flavorings, is another updating of an older track, this time from Baker’s 1999 Coward of the County. From that same album, trumpeter Ron Miles’ “Ginger Spice” becomes the Why? opening track, and I wager it is not likely a tribute to Geri Halliwell, the “Ginger Spice” of the Spice Girls.
The rest of the material also draws from the past. There’s one Ellis composition, “12 and More Blues,” which came from a 1993 album of that title, back when Ellis was doing his funk thing. Going back further in time, the group does Wayne Shorter’s 1966 “Footprints.” You can’t get much more bebop authentic than “St. Thomas,” a swinging take of the 1956 Sonny Rollins classic. In a very real sense, the entire set sounds like an attempt to capture what Rollins and his compatriots accomplished all those decades ago in both style and substance.
Co-produced by Baker, Dankworth, and Dodoo, Why? sounds like a group comfortable in the studio partly because they honed their song list on the road, partly because each is drawing from deep wells of influences and passions, and partly from a very obvious camaraderie based on mutual respect. I suspect the only thing better than an evening with Why? would be an evening with this quartet live. Even better news would be more releases are in the pipeline. At the risk of being branded a heretic, I’d rather hear more Jazz Confusion than another Cream reunion.