While not nearly as explosive as he once was, with Why? Ginger Baker employs a more nuanced approach to his kit, playing with a musicality that mirrors the phrasing and dynamics of his bandmates. The piano-less format gives Baker ample room to fill in the spaces generally reserved for chording instruments (as well as occasionally bark order musical directives). Because of this approach, however, he can often sound as though he’s off doing his own thing while bassist Alec Dankworth and saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis tackle an entirely separate tune (see: “Twelve And More Blues”) in another room.
One of the subtle highlights of Why?,“Cyril Davies”, an elegiac ode to the British harmonica player who died in 1964 at the age of 31 with whom Baker played during the halcyon days of British blues rock, is a showcase for both Ellis and Dankworth’s appropriately bluesy playing styles, both sitting finely atop Baker’s idiosyncratic drumming. Conversely, their take on “St. Thomas” feels slowed nearly to a crawl, adversely effected by the heat of the titular island despite some rather compelling stick work from Baker. As a whole, the music carries more of an anticipatory feel than anything else. Knowing Baker’s musical and personal history, we are left awaiting either fiery playing or fiery words, neither of which ever really arrive. The title then seems more a shrug than the menacing, smoke-enshrouded image of Baker on the cover would indicate; there is no threat here, just an aging former firebrand in failing health giving it a go while he still can.
// Notes from the Road
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