Recording of June 1999: Coward of the County

GINGER BAKER & THE DJQ2O: Coward of the County
Ginger Baker, drums; Ron Miles, trumpet; James Carter, baritone sax, bass clarinet; Fred Hess, tenor sax; Eric Gunnison, piano; Shamie Royston, organ; Todd Ayers, guitar; Glenn Taylor, pedal-steel guitar; Artie Moore, bass
Atlantic 83168-2 (CD). 1999. Ginger Baker, Ron Miles, prods.; Danny Kopelson, eng. DDD. TT: 60:26
Performance ****?
Sonics ****

He claims to have been a jazz drummer from the get-go, but Ginger Baker's tenures in Cream and Blind Faith ensure that he will be forever enshrined in the rock'n'roll pantheon. But except for an ill-conceived reunion with ex-Cream bassist Jack Bruce for BBM, a lackluster 1994 power trio (Around the Next Dream, Virgin 39728-2), Baker retired from the rock world in the early '80s to gradually move closer to jazz. In 1986, after a hiatus in Italy, where he took up olive farming, he re-emerged to collaborate with producer Bill Laswell on a couple of fusion/world-music projects, and in 1992 recorded Unseen Rain, a free-form jazz trio date with bassist Jonas Hellborg and pianist Jens Johannsson.

This set the stage for three CDs recorded for Atlantic in the '90s, beginning with Going Back Home, his brilliant trio date with guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Charlie Haden [produced by Stereophile's Chip Stern—Ed.], and culminating in this remarkable new disc, Coward of the Country. These recordings confirm that Baker's days of drumming up storms in rock arenas are ancient history, and that he deserves praise for his refined, ensemble-oriented jazz sensibility.

Recorded live in the studio and boasting sterling sound, Coward of the County features Baker holding forth with his Colorado jazz cronies, loosely formed into a relatively consistent performing band called DJQ2O, for Denver Jazz Quintet To Octet. (Most of the group's appearances took place after Baker's polo matches at the Mile High Polo Club, in post-game reveries in which the drummer could kick back after the competition.)

Tenor saxophonist Fred Hess leads his own group, the Boulder Creative Music Ensemble; inventive trumpeter Ron Miles has starred in Bill Frisell's Quartet and has recorded four CDs as a leader, including his 1997 Gramavision jewel, Woman's Day (79516). As co-producer of Coward of the County and composer of six of its eight tunes, Miles serves as the creative spark and coordinator of the band's stellar interplay.

With a few notable exceptions, Baker himself remains tethered to earth here, swinging tastefully. Sure, he could overpower each tune, but instead he listens and responds with restraint, his drumming low in the mix as he secures the rhythmic structure of each number without dominating.

The album opens with the gracefully swinging "Cyril Davies," inspired by the harmonica player/singer and one of two Baker compositions here. Davies died young of leukemia, after playing in the London-based band Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated, which Baker also belonged to in the early '60s. The piece is infused with the blues, evidenced in Miles' trumpet solo and the fat-toned baritone sax offerings of guest James Carter (he appears on three other cuts), who steps up to the plate to belt out a gripping, wailing improvisation.

Miles wrote the next track, "Ginger Spice," with Baker in mind. It's an ebullient beauty, with a colorful tapestry of spinning, swirling, juju-like rhythms over which Hess soars and Carter shreds. For those diehard rock fans who want to hear Ginger burst into volcanic flame, there's his "Dangle the Carrot," on which he unloads with a barrage of exclamatory drumming. The first quiet moment of the CD is Miles' deeply moving "Megan Showers," a tender number that the trumpeter delivers with yearning melancholy.

Baker and Miles cook up a diverse package in the collection's second half. In what the drummer calls "the most challenging piece of music I have ever played," the trumpeter leads the octet into the dynamic, meter-shifting "Jesus Loves You," which concludes with an ecstatic bloom of horn-blowing undergirded by Baker's rolling thunder. On the downcast title tune, Miles wafts introspective lines over Baker's sparkling support, while on the gracefully gripping "Daylight," guitarist Todd Ayers offers rock-edged shards of sound and organist Shamie Royston delivers restless gurglings. For the stunning finale, Carter returns with slow, bluesy bass-clarinet musings on Miles' sad, country-tinged "Jesus, I Want to Go to Sleep" (the tune originally appeared on Woman's Day), with additional weeping supplied by Glenn Taylor's pedal steel and Royston's church organ.

Coward of the County finds Ginger Baker stretching in a new direction, which is settling in with and drumming to the pulse of a regularly gigging band. The only disappointment is that a DJQ2O follow-up album seems unlikely—a few days after the release of this CD, Baker moved from Colorado, his home for more than five years, to South Africa.—Dan Ouellette