Anyone expecting a discussion of Baker's illustrious rock past will find that he doesn't give a damn about his illustrious rock past. Any rock, really. Discuss drummers he has influenced, some of whom were interviewed for Beware, and he scoffs. "That one drummer, [Chad Smith]? Ugh. Who is that guy? I never heard of his Red Hot Chili Peppers. I mean, c'mon, who are they?"
He doesn't want to talk about Eric Clapton or Jack Bruce (his partners in Cream, rock's first power trio), or Steve Winwood of Blind Faith. He lights up only when talk turns to his first and latest passion, jazz. He has good things to say about guitarist John McLaughlin (with whom he has played), our town's Philly Joe Jones ("really dug Philly Joe's drumming"), or fellow jazz beatkeepers like Elvin Jones and Max Roach. But comparing jazz musicians and rockers? Not keen.
Beginning in the mid-1950s, Baker - a natural musician who "just picked up the sticks, and never stopped" - gravitated toward London's heated jazz scene, inspired by New Orleans traditionalists like Baby Dodds and the Louis Armstrong band of the '20s. Baker was also drawn to Britain's first wild-man drummer, Phil Seamen, who turned young Ginger on to heroin, a drug that took him years to kick.
"Meeting Phil changed my playing forever," Baker says. "He played me records by African percussionists and told me that of all the other drummers he'd played these for, I was the only one that got it. He called me the son he never had. Phil also helped cut 10 years off of my life. Then again, it could have been 10 days, 10 weeks, or 100 years. Are you really counting?"
The young Baker was blown away by the post-bop roar of The Quintet of the Year, the 1953 Jazz at Massey Hall record featuring Max Roach, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, and Bud Powell. "That had a huge impact, especially Max. I just loved the way he played." By the early '60s, Baker had replaced Charlie Watts as the drummer in Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated before joining saxophonist/organist Graham Bond's Organization, whose 1965 hit, "Oh Baby," is referenced on Baker's new Why?
You can hear the ghosts of Baker's rich percussive past on Why? and its takes on modal blues by Wayne Shorter ("Footprint"), or Afro-Caribbean kickers by Sonny Rollins ("St. Thomas"). For Jazz Confusion, he chose the Coltrane-like saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis ("his sense of musical humor is very cool"), African percussionist Abass Dodoo ("he fits me like a glove"), and bassist Alec Dankworth, son of vocalist Cleo Laine and pianist John Dankworth. "I knew Alec's mum and dad," Baker says. "I did an audition with Johnny and got the gig, then didn't 'cause I was a junkie. Alec is my favorite bass player because he really knits rhythmically with me and Abass."
Living with degenerative osteoarthritis is painful, but Baker insists it "has not changed my drumming at all," a good thing considering his forthcoming American tour.
And, to the end, he is ever the music fan, and ever the contrarian: "I must say that I am looking forward to playing, but then again, I hate traveling. It's something I loathe and detest."
Ginger Baker's Jazz Confusion
8 p.m. Saturday at Havana, 105 S. Main St., New Hope.
Tickets: $90. Information: 215-862-5501 or www.havananewhope.com.