Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Making Flippy-Floppy


Ginger Baker
Originally uploaded by bsglaser.

Artist: Ginger Baker
Albums: Going Back Home; Coward of the County
Source: Bought used

One of the (many) things that drove me crazy about the 2004 presidential campaign was the Flip-Flop. Through some very crafty rhetorical maneuvering, the ‘Publicans drew a bright line around the idea that if you ever changed, you were a bad person. (Nevermind that the entire platform of the religious right that was underwriting said campaign is to get other people to change long-held and deeply-felt beliefs.) On important matters like war, country and the future, one should (apparently) stick with whatever decisions one made a long, long time ago, regardless of what may have transpired within that time.

To a certain extent, people are the same way about their musicians. Everyone wants to see “growth” in the artist, even “maturity” if a guy or gal sticks around long enough. But if an artist actually changes…well, that’s usually a problem. From Dylan plugging in at Newport to LL Cool J or Nirvana accepting an invitation to be on MTV Unplugged, it can drive the purists nuts.

Sometimes the purists are right. Lou Reed, for example, has “grown” all over the place, trying on all sorts of characters and styles, instrumentation and recording techniques. But for all his creative spelunking, all of the really good records Velvet Lou has made in the last 40 years or so sound more or less the same. And how well did it work out when Bob Mould started making dance music? Just typing that sentence makes me a little sad.

But there are probably more instances where working out new muscles is the key to staying in the creative ballgame. Ginger Baker – the artist formerly known as The Drummer from Cream – will always be known as a rock drummer. It will be the 1st line in his obituary, and he no doubt knows it. So the idea that he was suddenly a jazz musician probably came as news approximately as welcome as Dylan finding Jesus.

Score one for the Growth Crowd, though. Ginger has turned out to be a jazz drummer not only of considerably ability, but one with a personal voice and slightly groundbreaking style. Instead of denying his rock chops on his jazz discs, Ginger makes them work together, letting the potential stylistic conflict work itself out as riveting musical tension. It ain’t fusion – it’s just damn good music.

Going Back Home is one that I picked up for the other 2 names on the package: Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden. I’ll listen to just about anything either of them plays on, and figured Ginger couldn’t fuck it up too badly with them around. But that’s not how it is here – Ginger is clearly, audibly the leader here, and the trio meshes like nobody’s business. It would take pages and pages to fully describe everything that’s good here – instead, just take my word and get the disc. I still play it all the time, and it always sounds fresh.

Coward of the County is another one I bought because of another name on the guest list. This time it was James Carter, a young sax player who had just blown me away at the Blue Note. I found this little gem that features his playing (along with Ron Miles, another Frisell associate) and…well, wouldn’t you know that it’s Ginger kicking ass again. This time it’s a large-ish jazz group, but the tunes, the playing, the arrangements and the goddamned GINGER are happening left and right.

The best part is that neither of them sound like Cream, or anything directly related to what the name “Ginger Baker” conjures up. Like Wilco ditching the alt-country or Coltrane leaving be-bop behind, Ginger takes the leap of faith in his own talent and artistic instincts, and flip-flops into some great records.

SISOSIG? If anything, I should probably be looking for more Ginger Baker discs. These are so comprehensively delightful that it not only makes me think highly of Baker, but validates the entire concept of an artist changing his palette, even when (or maybe especially when) he’s got a good thing going.

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