Bill Frisell on Working With the Late Ginger Baker: 'It Was Total Generosity'

Bill Frisell
Monica Jane Frisell

Bill Frisell

If you take a deep dive into the late Ginger Baker's discography, one of his most fruitful yet overlooked periods is the four-year scope of his mid-90s jazz trio with bassist Charlie Haden and guitarist Bill Frisell. The Ginger Baker Trio produced two albums for Atlantic in 1994's Going Back Home and 1996's Falling Off The Roof, released in parallel to the drummer's fervent return to heavy guitar rock with a brief stint with stoner rock pioneers Masters of Reality and the short-lived BBM trio. For Frisell, an avowed Cream fan, his time playing in Baker's jazz group was a largely pleasant experience that didn't entail any of the wild man antics that made him a rock legend for all the wrong reasons. But he admits to being quite intimidated upon formally meeting him for the first time as they began work on Going Back Home.

"When I went to do the first album, I don't think he knew who I was or anything," Frisell tells Billboard. "It was like a setup: Chip Stern, who produced the record, he knew Ginger for a long, long time, and he knew me and he knew Charlie. So he had a vision of what it would be like to hear us playing together. Somehow he convinced the record company to go for it. So for Ginger, he knew Charlie but I don't think he knew who I was at all. I go into the studio and I'm like, 'Oh God, what am I gonna do?' I never met him before formally and I was super nervous. I go into the studio and he's setting up his drums and smoking cigarettes, cigarette butts are all over the place, and he's mumbling to himself. I go up to him like, 'Excuse me, Ginger, I'm the guitar player.' And he said to me, 'Hi, how ya doin'?' He wasn't hugging me hello or anything (laughs). But then, I swear to God, the first tune we start playing all together it just kicked in almost immediately and he just started smiling. There was so much joy in him feeling the three of us just playing in a room together. And it felt so true and so real. He was super generous with how we could play and what tunes we wanted to play whether it was one of mine or one of Charlie's or his own. It was just three guys getting together to play, and that really showed me where he was at. It was strictly about the music for him. It's what got him going."

As Frisell saw it firsthand, Ginger Baker was a man who took his craft seriously. The music he created, be it with the Graham Bond Organisation or Cream or Blind Faith or his Air Force or the Baker Gurvitz Army or Fela Kuti or Jazz Confusion, was the focal point of his 80 years on earth, with personal relationships to those around him sometimes suffering.

"There was a beautiful quote from Steve Winwood I just read talking about how sensitive he was," reflects Frisell. "And that, for me, was what I got more than anything from being around Ginger. In the film they made about him, what came through for me was his intense love and commitment to the music. I actually think of him more like this super sensitive about the nature of his craft. He loves music and to be able to play music like that and listen the way he did, you gotta be super sensitive, and I think some of that exterior was more like a shield where a super sensitive person existed. I know plenty of other people like that, and it's a fragile existence. If you love something that much, you are incredibly protective of it, and for Ginger that was the music."

Frisell does admit, however, that the sessions for Falling Off The Roof -- though hardly reflected in the finished output, which included guest appearances from guitarist Jerry Hahn and banjo superhero Béla Fleck -- were a more trying experience for Baker than Going Back Home.

"Falling Off The Roof was a more difficult birth," he admits to Billboard. "The album was called Falling Off The Roof because right before we went into the studio, Ginger was working up on the roof of his house and fell and broke a bone. So he was in a lot of pain throughout the sessions and he was taking a little bit too much pain medication or something, I can't remember. But it wasn't the ideal circumstance. The first one was a more effortless thing."

Nevertheless, working with Charlie Haden was equally bucket-list caliber for Frisell.

"I first heard Charlie around the same time I heard Ginger," recalled the guitarist. "Within months after seeing Cream live, I bought Keith Jarrett's album Somewhere Before, which were the first notes I heard from Charlie, as he played bass on the record with Paul Motian on drums, someone else who I'd go on to work alongside for many years. When I first met Paul, he would always talk about Charlie Haden. It was Charlie this and Charlie that. They were like brothers. And he would tell me about Charlie's triplet daughters and all this stuff. So when I met Petra, which was sometime in the late '90s, I was living in Seattle and she came out here to play a gig. So I went to see her and it really felt like a mutual thing where we already knew each other. Pretty soon after that we made a duet record in 2003 and played out a lot."

A quarter century after recording that first Ginger Baker Trio album for Atlantic Records in 1994 with Charlie Haden, Frisell would find himself commemorating over 15 years of working with Petra on his latest album Harmony, a gorgeous collection of reimagined songs by Elvis Costello, Stephen Foster, Julie Miller, Pete Seeger and others balanced out by instrumental pieces for Petra's distinctive vocal phrasing and the cello work of longtime associate Hank Roberts. And, coincidentally, Harmony is his debut album on Blue Note Records -- a name synonymous with pillars of Mr. Baker's rhythmic DNA in Art Blakey, Max Roach and Elvin Jones.

"After I graduated high school, my parents moved from Colorado to New Jersey, and shortly thereafter I went to the Village Vanguard for the first time," the guitar player tells Billboard. "It was also when I got this record; it was a Blue Note compilation. It was their 30th anniversary in 1969, and they put out these three double albums. The one I got was from 1949 to 1959, so it had Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Sonny Clark, John Coltrane, Clifford Brown, Jimmy Smith and Kenny Burrell. There was Bud Powell on there. That was one of the first jazz albums I ever got, that Blue Note compilation. It was like a lifetime of information just on this one record."

As the world winds down its first week without Ginger Baker walking among us, Frisell can only look back with wonder at having had the opportunity to work with the cantankerous icon of AOR's propulsive rhythm.

"When I was in high school and there was all this music just coming at me and I was just dreaming that I could someday play the guitar, I went to see Cream in 1968," Frisell reflects. "Hearing Ginger for the first time back then, that sound was ingrained in my body somehow. It's so deep down in my DNA. And then if you had told me then that 25 years later I'd get to play with not only him but Charlie Haden as was incredible. It was just total generosity with Ginger. We didn't at all experience whatever stuff sometimes that people would talk about concerning his rough exterior. It wasn't like he was telling us what to do at all. He just let us play, and I felt like I could do anything I wanted within the frame of these compositions. He definitely seemed happy when he was playing with us."