Jazz: The fabulous Baker boy

Ginger Baker found fame in the blues-rock behemoth Cream, but now the legendary drummer has returned to his jazz roots. And discovered a passion for polo. By Kevin Le Gendre
It's one of the most intriguing tunes of the year so far. The basic time signature is a teasing 9/8 but there's a 12/8 theme running underneath. Three horns, including a hefty baritone sax, make soulful, gospel-tinged statements over the strange, seductive beat. The unusual combination of textures is completed by two sniping guitars, one of which, a twanging pedal steel, gives the music a languid, bluegrass overtone. The whole weird and wonderful piece is propelled by light but decisive drumming. The tune is "Ginger Spice". The drummer is Ginger Baker.

"Ron Miles, the trumpeter in my band, wrote that song for me! He'd never even heard of The Spice Girls before," says Baker, the man most will recognise as one third of the blues rockers Cream. "Ginger Spice" is one of several outstanding tracks from Coward of the County, arguably his best album in years.

"I turned up at rehearsal and saw these two guitars. One was country & western and the other straight, and I was like, `what's goin' on here?' Then I saw the parts for `Ginger Spice'. I wasn't sure how it was gonna work but when we started to play, it all clicked. Ron Miles is an amazing musician."

Granted. But he'd never heard of The Spice Girls. Had he been living on Mars? Not quite. Denver, Colorado, in fact. Which is where Miles and the other talented yet unknown members of the DJQ2O (Denver Jazz Quintet To Octet) met Baker in 1995. An odd place for Baker to end up, you may think. After all, this is the Londoner who's lived in Florence and California, a rock star who, alongside the guitar hero Eric Clapton and the bassist Jack Bruce, shot to fame in Sixties London.

The combo lasted only a couple of years, but songs such as "Sunshine of your Love" and "Tales of Brave Ulysses" have assured them a place in rock folklore. Post-Cream, Baker recorded with all sorts, including Steve Winwood and Rick Grech. He then founded his own groups - Airforce and Energy - in the Seventies. Towards the end of the decade, the Lewisham- born drummer decided to reinvent himself - as a polo player. Old drummers never put down their sticks; they just pick up bigger ones and mount horses. "I moved to Colorado in the mid-Nineties and we started this polo and jazz gig in Denver," he says. "We'd play polo till sunset then play music with the DJQ2O, pulling in 1,000 people sometimes."

Not everybody was hip to Denver's polo and jazz scene, though. Baker's record label, Atlantic, wanted him to do another CD with big-names such as Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden, with whom he'd made two excellent albums, Going Back Home and Falling off the Roof, a few years ago. DJQ meant nothing outside Denver.

"I said, `look, I've got this incredible band in Denver', and they just didn't believe me. They really didn't," chuckles Baker. To convince the sceptics, the DJQ2O did a week at the Iridium club in New York. "We blew everybody away. It was jam-packed. We got rave reviews across the board. So after that the record company were like, `yeah, let's do the album'."

Jazz is nothing new for Baker. At 16, he got a job with a London trad group, the Storyville Jazz band and in 1960, he was a regular member of the house band at Ronnie Scott's. Yet he also had an interest in blues and rock. After joining the influential Alexis Korner band in 1962, he moved on to the Graham Bond trio a couple of years later, where he met Jack Bruce. Clapton used to sit in on jam sessions.

Cream went on to achieve major success, part of a pioneering wave of genre-bending musicians such as Steve Winwood, Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix. But the band was never a raison d'etre for Baker. "It's become an albatross around my neck," he says. "Every couple of years I'll get someone come up to me dressed in Spandex trousers, make-up all over 'em, rings in their nipples, and they go `yeah, man, you were a big inspiration to me for my heavy metal'. I hate it when that happens!"

In 1970, Airforce had a US tour cancelled and he went to Africa instead. Upon arrival in war-torn Nigeria, he looked up Fela Kuti, whom Baker had first met in London in the Sixties. Kuti, who was fusing jazz, rock and juju rhythms to create Afro-beat, was about to tour himself, but his regular drummer was sick. Baker took his place. "I ended up doing a five-week tour of Nigeria with Fela. It was just amazing - me playing drums in Africa!

Baker stayed in Nigeria for six years. "I love Africa. I feel very much at home there. I am a drummer, after all." He is now set to return to the continent. After two years of being hounded by the US immigration authorities for drugs busts in the Seventies, he's relocating to South Africa. "The polo is great there. It's a beautiful country. They never really wanted me to live in America anyway. They just let me stay for a while because I'm a good drummer."

But what about the DJQ2Q? "I definitely want to keep the band together. We're trying to get a European tour. People hear about the Denver Jazz Quartet and they think it's gonna be lousy, but when they hear the music they soon change their tune." All it takes is a touch of Ginger Spice.

`Coward of the County' is out now on Atlantic