There’s a point in Jay Bulger’s compelling documentary Beware of Mr. Baker where the filmmaker sits down with Eric Clapton and asks him to pit Cream drummer Ginger Baker against his rock contemporaries – John Bonham, Keith Moon. Clapton makes a sour, disgusted face, and immediately dismisses the notion that they’re even on the same plane. Baker, he explains, didn’t just bang things with sticks. Baker understands music, arrangement, dynamics. This immediately made me think of one of the best rock drummers in present-day Philadelphia – Chris Powell of avant-garde indie luminaries Man Man, as well as side projects Adventuredrum and Spaceship Aloha. Powell is someone who you could watch perform and think, wow, that’s one tripped-out percussionist. But those paying attention can also quickly pick up on the nuances of his playing, his imaginative arrangements and attention to detail.
With Beware of Mr. Baker opening at the Philadelphia Film Festival with a screening tonight at West Philly’s Rave Theater, and another one on Sunday at the Ritz East, I decided to get Powell’s take on this drummer whose career bridged rock, jazz and African percussion – as well as polo, drug addition and no shortage of emotional and domestic troubles. We each watched the film, and met up last night to compare notes. Powell observed the similarities between Baker’s untamed red beard and Animal from The Muppets. We pondered Clapton’s skepticism of rockers who die young. “It’s like you’re preserved in amber,” Powell said in agreement. “You don’t have to deal with real life – things like trends changing, or the music business changing, or navigating a career in an industry that mostly wants young people.” And we had a wide-ranging discussion on this dynamic portrayal of a fascinating figure in contemporary music, which you can read below.
The Key: As a non-musician watching the movie, I responded to Ginger Baker as a versatile drummer but also a fascinating personality. As a drummer, what was your take?
Chris Powell: You know how there’s certain bands you like, and if you really connect to it, that’s when the digging starts? I never really connected with Ginger Baker that way, probably because I never really liked Cream that much. So definitely his personality was pretty shocking, I had no idea it was how he was, manic or whatever. I didn’t know about his background in jazz. Which is funny because Mitch Mitchell, for example, he played with Hendrix, and he’s one of my favorite drummers. Hendrix had a rock band essentially, and Mitchell was a jazz drummer who was doing the rock thing. But I didn’t know the extent to which Ginger Baker was actually straight up a jazz drummer.
TK: It was neat to see this period towards the beginning of rock, where the people who were playing in bands are really schooled people. Not that people today aren’t…
CP: They’re not! A lot of them aren’t.
TK: But in a pre-punk era, its interesting how, wow, a lot of these people seriously know their stuff.
CP:I feel like this comes up pretty regularly, just because of the roots of music in America and those Big Bands. If that’s when you grew up, that’s what you know. You know jazz, because that’s kind of all there was, and you had to take your pick form all these really brilliant bands. Regardless of the arrangements, and what your taste is, you’re around nothing but pure talent. So it created this situation where, at the beginning of rock and roll, there’s just these brilliant players. They could totally play this rock stuff, yeah, but they are also dynamite musicians. Continue reading