LICKS: Rhythm-N-Ing with Ginger Baker

When the rock god displayed his chops at the Bottom Line in 1983 the Voice was there to take a look and give a listen.


December 13, 1983

Blowing into town with a whisper instead of a roar, Ginger Baker materialized onstage at the Bottom Line Thursday like some sleepy-eyed ancient mariner of time, an almost forgotten hero of modern rhythm, the Baby Dodds of hard rock drummers. But was he ever really a rock ’n’ roller? With his long arms, large gentle hands, tall gangling frame, and pop-eyed Dickensian demeanor, Baker was essentially a trad jazz/blues player, who came to rock (as Charlie Watts had) through the midwifing of Alexis Korner. And while chroniclers have tended to lump him with Mitch Mitchell, Keith Moon, and John Bonham, the latter were essentially spirited fellows who played drums for some important bands, but Ginger Baker played music on the drums, a fact often overlooked amid the excesses that followed in Cream’s wake, and the general condemnation of drum solos.

With Italians Robert Ciocci and Enzo Pietro Pauli on guitar and bass respectively, the band searched for their sea legs even as they navigated traditional blues material with Crusaders-like élan, all the while driven along by the hypnotic relaxation of Baker’s shimmying sizzle cymbal, press rolls, and New Orleans fatback. It was during Baker’s extended thematic workout on “Rollin’ ’n Tumblin’ ” (the Muddy Waters country version not Cream’s rhythmic rave-up) that Ginger went into his African-Max Roach/Art Blakey bag, modulating in rhythm the way a pianist might run chordal cycles, in a welter of crossing patterns, dynamic shifts, and melodic accents, sounding for all the world like an army of talking drummers, concluding with a double-bass-­drummed bolero of epic proportions. Were Ginger Baker able to orchestrate harmonies and melodies to match his unique rhythmatics (as Shannon Jackson has endeavored to do), he might yet come out from under the shadow of his ill­-deserved reputation for empty chopsmanship.