For a change, the late 1960s yielded up a supergroup that lived up to its hype and then some. Ginger Baker's Air Force was recorded live at Royal Albert Hall in January of 1970 - in fact, this may be the best-sounding live album ever to come out of that notoriously difficult venue - at a show that must have been a wonder to watch, as the ten-piece band blazed away in sheets of sound, projected delicate flute parts behind multi-layered African percussion, or built their songs up Bolero-like, out of rhythms from a single instrument into huge jazz-cum-R&B crescendos. Considering that this was only their second gig, the group sounds astonishingly tight, which greatly reduces the level of self-indulgence that one would expect to find on an album where five of the seven tracks run in excess of ten minutes…
Persuaded by Laswell to continue working throughout the second half of 1980s, drummer Ginger Baker produced some of his most stimulating collections, not least of which were the Laswell produced Middle Passage and this 1986 set. The drummer is rock-solid throughout, which means that most of the compositions become a showcase for an impressive lineup of guest musicians that reads like a list of the Bill Laswell all-stars. Even when pared down to an all-rhythm trio on "Mountain Time," Baker, though undeniably effective, remains the big beat behind Daniel Ponce and Aiyb Dieng's percussion display.
With producer Bill Laswell, who mixes African drummers (Ayib Dieng, Mar Gueye, Magette Fall) with fusioneers (Bernie Worrell, Jonas Hellborg, Nicky Skopelitis) and bassists (Jah Wohble and Laswell) to land in a "middle passage" of worldbeat. Not bad at all.
Ginger Baker's taken the long road to a position at the height of the jazz drums family. He spent half a decade playing jazz in England before making it very, very big with Cream. Then he nearly vanished, playing drums all the while but without the fan base Cream afforded him. Then came his two head-turning jazz trio CDs Going Back Home and Falling Off the Roof, both of which featured the bass and guitar of Charlie Haden and Bill Frisell, and which won accolades and more. Following those outings is this collection from Baker's Denver Quintet to Octet (or DJQ2O), which employs a host of the finest jazzers from Colorado's biggest city. Saxophonist Fred Hess and trumpeter Ron Miles are the best known of the bunch, but the entire band plays strong postbop. The group can vamp in a minor key with strong feeling, and it can get ferociously gritty, as on "Daylight," which gets drenched in distorted electric and pedal steel guitars at once. This is a jazz ensemble that should be on the road constantly, playing to ravaged crowds; its members are talented in every way.
It's hard to go wrong with Fela Kuti's work from the 1970s, and LIVE!, which features the Afrobeat innovator backed by his powerhouse band Africa '70 and ex-Cream drummer Ginger Baker, is no exception. Like all of Fela's recordings from the era, LIVE! consists of just a few tracks, each of which approximates or exceeds the ten minute mark. Yet the arrangements are so dynamic on these tracks, the criss-crossing polyrhythms so absorbing, and Fela's incantatory vocals so entrancing that the long running times never seem a factor. Every cut crackles from beginning to end with its mixture of funk, jazz, and traditional Nigerian music, underscoring once again Fela's revolutionary, indelible contribution to world music.
There are a whole lotta musicians who would kill for a resumé like that of peripatetic drummer Ginger Baker: member of Cream and Blind Faith, bandmate of Fela Kuti, survivor of a drum showdown with Elvin Jones, olive farmer, polo player, born-again jazzer (his '95 trio recording, Going Back Home, certified his abilities).
Give Ginger Baker this: He sure knows how to choose his sidemen. In fact, there is a certain pleasant symmetry to his recording career between the mid-'60s and the mid-'90s. It is a career bookended by power trios, first with his partnership with fellow virtuosos Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce in Cream, and then, almost 30 years later and well after most would have written him off as a relic from a bygone era, this trio with Charlie Haden and Bill Frisell. More surprising even than this unlikely partnership is the fact that the album actually works.