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Ginger Baker and the DJQ20: Coward of the County

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Strangely, after years of isolation on an olive farm in a remote section of Italy, drumming legend Ginger Baker has ended up living in Denver. There he has assembled a crack outfit dubbed The Denver Jazz Quintet To Octet, featuring the strong tenor man Fred Hess and the phenomenally gifted composer-trumpeter Ron Miles. Pianist Eric Gunnison and bassist Artie Moore round out the quintet with organist Shamie Royston, guitarist Todd Ayers, and pedal steel guitarist Glenn Taylor added to complete the octet portion of the program here. Atlantic labelmate James Carter guests on four tracks, blowing his baritone sax with typical ferocity and swagger on Miles’ “Afro Blue”-ish 12/8 theme “Ginger Spice” and on Baker’s extended blues “Cyril Davis,” then brandishing bass clarinet on two other Miles gems, the loping, metrically shifting “Jesus Loves Me” and the eerily melancholy country-gospel ballad “Jesus, I Just Want to Go to Sleep,” which has him testifying in Carterian fashion.

The underrated Hess gets to stretch out on Baker’s swinging quintet vehicle, “Dangle the Carrot,” which has the excitable bandleader dropping bombs like Art Blakey before unleashing a typically “Toad”-like drum solo. Miles shows extraordinary facility and capacity for expressiveness on his horn, stepping into a freer Don Cherry zone on “Dangle the Carrot,” swinging with impunity on “Jesus Loves Me” then playing with uncommon gentleness and lyricism on ballads like “Megan Showers” and the hymn-like title track. “Daylight” shows Miles’ darker, more dissonant side, an interesting part of his musical makeup which he ably demonstrated on two excellent solo CDs for Gramavision, My Cruel Heart and Woman’s Day .

Baker’s playing is melodic, interactive, and swinging throughout with brushes or sticks. But his strength as a bandleader, like his hero Blakey, is to have the good sense to surround himself with and foster great talent. That egoless, team approach always results in great music.