Since the release of that film and the formation of his new band, Ginger Baker’s Jazz Confusion, Baker has kept a heightened profile. The group’s album (“Why?”), Baker’s first studio effort in more than 15 years, features veteran James Brown saxman Pee Wee Ellis along with bassist Alec Dankworth and percussionist Abass Dodoo. Though the height of Baker’s commercial success came with the late-’60s rock power trio Cream, his solo work has circled back repeatedly to the jazz idiom in which he first learned to play.
Reached on the phone from the West Coast, Baker serves up the expected dose of irascibility. But he fields questions patiently for 20 minutes, and closes with a gracious “thank you.” He’s not a man of many words, but that’s not a bad tradeoff when his music speaks so well for itself.
Q. Hello, is this Mr. Baker?
A. No, this is the Pope. Can you speak slowly and clearly please?
Q. I can do that.
A. Are you sure?
Q. Yes. How are the shows going so far?
A. Really good.
Q. What makes a gig successful from your perspective?
A. Well, lots of people there, enjoying it.
Q. How did this band come together?
A. Well it was a friend of mine, a roadie. We call him Hagar. I’ve been working with Abbas [Dodoo] for many years. And he suggested Pee Wee [Ellis] and Alec [Dankworth], and he arranged us to get together. It worked straight away. So that was it. We have fun every time we play. It’s never the same twice.
Q. Did you give them any instructions about what you wanted?
A. No. I’d never met ’em until we played together.
Q. Working with another percussionist in the band, what sort of musical opportunities does that open up to you?
A. I can’t understand your question.
Q. Well, in most of your groups I don’t think you had another full-time percussionist, so I wonder if it provides a chance to use more polyrhythms or to open things up in a different way.
A. I don’t know, we just work very well together. Somebody said in a write-up that we must have some kind of psychic connection, ’cause we always know what we’re doing. Alec fits in with me and Abbas really well. He’s got the time thing down, which a lot of people don’t. Alec is probably the best bass player I’ve ever worked with. He’s just amazing.
Q. I heard you recorded the new album in two days. So I suppose things went really quickly?
A. No, it went really slowly. Of course it went quickly, we did it in two days!
Q. Are you happy with how it came out?
A. Obviously, or it wouldn’t have been released.
Q. Were you very familiar with Pee Wee Ellis’s past work?
A. No, I don’t listen to music at all.
Q. I’ve seen that you don’t listen to current rock bands. Is it the same for jazz, or are there some jazz players you find influential?
A. I just told you, I don’t listen to music. I do not listen to music! OK?
Q. Has it been many years since you’ve listened to any of your own recordings?
A. A record just came out, an anthology called “A Drummer’s Tale,” which includes tracks from just about everything I’ve done that’s good.
Q. Did you listen to that?
A. Of course I did.
Q. You’ve been playing drums since you were a teenager. How did you know that this was what you were going to do for the rest of your life?
A. I realized I was a drummer because I could play. I just sat down on a drum kit and played. And I had a couple horn players standing in front of me saying: “You’re a drummer.” I said oh, maybe I’m a drummer. All the kids knew. I used to bang on the desks and get everybody dancing and boogieing around.
Q. You’ve always said you don’t necessarily believe in practicing, right?
A. That’s true, but I did have a couple of years where I practiced every day. But once you can play what you want to play, what’s the point of practicing? There’s so many drummers that practice, practice, practice all the time and when they get on a gig, they’re trying got play everything they’ve been practicing, no matter what other people are playing.
Q. You’ve talked about how you’re exhausted by the end of a gig. Now that you’ve been back in a touring rhythm for a couple of years, does that part get any better for you?
A. No. What I’ve got is degenerative osteoarthritis. What does “degenerative” mean? It gets worse all the time. So it obviously isn’t getting any better. It’s getting worse.
Q. Is there any particular significance to playing in front of American audiences again after about 15 years?
A. They’re no different to any other audience.
Q. Do you like being in this country?
A. It’s OK, I suppose. The problem is, you can’t get a proper cup of tea in America.
Q. What’s your preferred kind of tea?
A. It’s not the kind of tea! They’ve got the proper tea here; they just don’t know how to make it. If it’s not made properly, I can’t drink it, it’s horrible. They seem to think that Earl Grey is English tea. It’s not at all, it’s terrible, but I’ve got in my hotel room here about 45 bags of Earl Grey tea.
Interview has been condensed and edited. Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.