I wasn’t there – I was barely alive at the time – but the impact of Last Exit in jazz circles must’ve been intense. After Bill Laswell, Peter Brotzmann, Roland Shannon Jackson, and Sonny Sharrock started making face-meltingly powerful free jazz, all kinds of new and exciting stuff started popping up. John Zorn’s Naked City, for example.
And for a moment in 1987, Ginger Baker got in on the movement, too. It sounds like a headscratcher: isn’t Baker the guy from Cream and those afro-funk influenced Air Force records?
Well yeah, but Baker’s career has included everyone from Fela Kuti to Eric Clapton to, yes, Bill Laswell. Their story goes something like this: Laswell was working on a Public Image Ltd. record with John Lydon, who cheekily suggested Baker, then half-retired and living in Italy. Eventually, Baker became part of Laswell’s circle, which is how I’d assume he met Brotzmann and Sharrock.
As for No Material, I’m not sure whose idea the group was. It’s half of Last Exit, Baker, guitarist (and Laswell-associated) Nicky Skopelitis, and bassist Jan Kazda, who Baker worked with on African Force in the mid-80s. Their name reflected their approach: no setlists, no prepared material, all improv, all the time.
It only lasted a week.
Even at the best of times, Baker was probably a hard guy to get along with; on the road, with a band who were making it up as they went along each night, things probably got pretty frazzled every night.
So Baker’s No Material lineup allegedly played just three shows before they fell apart. Interestingly, though, two of these shows were professionally recorded. One was released a while back as Live in Munich 1987, a release I know only a little about; I think it’s a grey-market radio broadcast. The other is No Material, the band’s only proper release. It’s utterly fantastic.
No Material is made up of four tracks, all improvised. They build and circle around riffs and ideas, work themselves into a fury and drop away. There’s a little tension, but nothing betraying a band coming apart or lacking inspiration. They’re interesting and intense without being abrasive or overwhelming.
No Material opens with “Dishy Billy,” (credited to Baker) which starts around Skopelitis playing slide guitar (I think?) and Baker’s high-hat before Sharrock and Brotzmann enter, first poking their way around but eventually working into a groove with Baker’s drumming. After a few minutes, both start hitting the high notes, Brotzmann’s sax wailing and squeaking, while the rhythm section plods along, keeping things in check, even when Baker, Brotzmann, and Sharrock are all playing in a frenzy.
Meanwhile, “Skin the Pizzle” (credited to Sharrock) builds around a jangling riff by Skopelitis and Kazda, with Sharrock providing a sizzling guitar solo. After a few minutes, Brotzmann enters with a forceful sax solo and the two duet before the rhythm section change keys and Kazda plays in the higher register of his bass, getting into some Jaco Pastorius-like territory. Later, as Sharrock’s lead starts getting more energetic, Baker’s drumming grows propulsive, attacking with rolls and cymbal crashes, and Brotzmann reenters before the track winds down, again around Skopelitis’ guitar.
The second half is another two extended improvisations. “Oil of Tongue” (Skopelitis) has Kazda playing a bass solo over some restrained guitar. But around three minutes in, Sharrock enters and him and Brotzmann solo around each other, the rhythm section building tension behind them while Sharrock just rips apart his fretboard and Baker attacks his cymbals. The track ends with the band driving at full speed, pushing along Brotzmann and Sharrock.
Finally, there’s “One in the Bush Is Worth Two in the Hand,” (Brotzmann) which is built around Kazda’s slap bass and Baker’s stuttering, syncopated beat. Against Sharrock playing some Hendrix-styled leads, the rhythm section sounds almost like something from My Life in the Bush of Ghosts: early 80s, Laswell-styled funk. There’s some nice touches – Kazda chiming in with a thundering bass riff or two, Sharrock milking the wah pedal – but things really come together around the five-minute mark, when Brotzmann enters, the guitars play off each other and three voices are playing at the same time, but it doesn’t sound nearly as chaotic as you’d expect. Later, Sharrock’s guitar descends into a fuzzy haze and Baker attacks his drum kit, pushing the improv to over 16 minutes, before everything winds down in a haze of feedback and applause.
The whole performance lasts about an hour and throughout, it only seems like a few things were even sketched out on stage; most of the songs come together over time, coming together and apart as the band plays and moves around the music. At times, things work amazingly well; at times, the playing is slow and it’s like they’re trying to figure out what comes next. Thankfully, there’s much more of the former than the latter.
But as a whole, this lineup clicks incredibly well on stage: Brotzmann and Sharrock love to play free and want to push the music into uncharted waters, but the rhythm section of Baker and Kazda generally try to keep things from getting too wild. And in the middle is Skopelitis, whose playing compliments Sharrock’s, but also keeps them in line with the rhythm section: his rhythm guitar is tasteful, yes, but grounded. Without him, it’s not hard to see this group coming apart between the poles of Sharrock and Baker. It’s a nice contrast, neither as intense or hard to listen to as Last Exit can be, but jazzier and more experimental than Baker’s work with Air Force or Cream.
Still, this lineup wasn’t meant to be and everyone soon moved on to new projects: Skopelitis to Laswell-associated records with The Golden Palominos and Herbie Hancock, Kazda with Tom Mega and Brotzmann with the avant garde: Cecil Taylor, Bill Laswell and more Last Exit gigs.
Although there isn’t a lot of info on this band out there on No Material or why they lasted so short a time, a bootleg of a show from March 19, 1987 of just Baker and Sharrock maybe provides a clue for why they came together: did Baker feel like trying his hand as a jazz drummer again? Did hanging out with Laswell and his associates inspire him? Was he just bored? Either way, after this, Baker didn’t pop up again until the 90s, when he played with BBM, Jah Wobble, and Masters of Reality. And he’s never really embraced this style of music to such a degree again since, either.
The original issue of this record is out of print, but the German label ITM has a two-CD reissue that combines both circulating No Material shows.