Jeff Ballard has spent the equivalent of a month of Sundays casting his shadow along with bassist Larry Grenadier’s in the Brad Mehldau Trio. So what does he do when he ventures out on his own time? He takes the difficult and almost defiant high road as a percussionist, casting himself as a front-ranking melodic instrument. Mr. Ballard then goes on to establish, at first tenuous relationships with the guitar-playing and sometimes yowling Lionel Loueke and the alto saxophone playing wünderkind, Miguél Zenón. Mr. Ballard, further turns his drum set and his assorted percussion into something that comes as close as possible to the chants of the human voice, which appears to be sending out loosely coded messages that bounce of the trees and the sky returning to earth, as they once did when music was communication and music was a pure expression of emotion and love, and therefore was story telling among the griot of Africa who sailed to America and brought with them the celebration of Congo Square.
Jeff Ballard’s Time’s Tales is all this and more. “Beat Street” tells that story: the anecdotal one that once brought all manner of characters to New Orleans and to the celebration day in Congo Square, when the big boys and girls and the voodoo shamans and the musicians came out to show their stuff. Mr. Ballard’s playing here is absolutely magical. Every beat; every stroke on the drum; every swish of the cymbal is the “rat-a-tat” and the “tic-a-tic” and the breezy “ssssh…tish” on the ride cymbal as the drummer sings and brings an ancient story to life. This does not mean that the music is leaning back in time; rather that Mr. Ballard is bringing that period in time into the future. This may be listened to along with “Free 1,” which is a dramatic turnaround from the New Orleans of “Beat Street,” but it is also an extension of that time into a future time when the beat of the street becomes the new beat. Miguél Zenón’s saxophone plays a brilliant countermelody as the music—raw and visceral—tears the roof off the proverbial and artificial ceiling that might be created by the music seeking to expand the horizons from whence it comes.
This is a bold and brazen recording and it often ventures where even jazz cognoscenti feared to go until John Coltrane and Albert Ayler went there freely. The fearless music of “Free 1” and its consonant “Free 3” are two such examples of this music. There is also a venturing into unpopular territory and the radicalism of the record ultimately sustains the gut-wrenching and ghostly screams of “Hanging Tree”. This is something rare, as few musicians have dared to bring up the issue of race, except Warren Smith and a few other musicians. The music that follows this chart is one of some repose and listeners might feel some relief from the invasiveness of “Hanging Tree”. But not for long: even “Dal (A Rhythm Song)” with its melancholy guitar and saxophone and its drums filled with premonition can startle and guarantee a dark narrative filled with foreboding.
Time’s Tales is an exquisite album and listeners might do well to listen with the heart for there is a deeper tale to tell here, thanks to the soul searching that drummer Jeff Ballard did.
Track List: Virgin Forest; Western Wren (A Bird Call); Beat Street; The Man I Love; Free 1; Hanging Tree; Dal (A Rhythm Song); El Reparador De Suenos; Mivakpola; Free 3.
Personnel: Jeff Ballard: drums, percussion; Lionel Loueke: guitar; Miguél Zenón: alto saxophone.
Label: Sony Masterworks /Okeh Records | Release date: February 2014
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Jeff Ballard grew up in Santa Cruz, California. He recalls when he was a child laying in bed listening to the music his father would play every weekend: Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Louie Armstrong, Sergio Mendez, Oscar Peterson, Milton Nascimento; how he loved the sound and the speed of Ed Thigpen’s brushes on the snare. “I remember feeling the power of a Basie big band shout chorus which would then suddenly disappear into some quiet dancing riff. It was the swing in it, which excited me the most. I also remember how it felt traveling thru sounds of the jungle in a Milton Nascimento record. The drums, percussion, and voice, would sound as if they either came from the earth or were made of water. And I was so happy to hear the joy of Ella and Louie singing and playing together. I think that that early exposure has made me part of what I am today, especially in regards to my love for sound.”
In a community college he studied music theory and played in a big band as well as started working in small groups that played music for all kinds of occasions. He realized then that there are ways to play the drums, which are particular for each occasion. Each genre has requirements with needs to be met. “A big band needs a propelling and simple drive, more supportive, for the ensemble to sit in. Brazilian drumming needs that driving bass drum with an insistent yet light dancing quality with the hands. Reggae asks for a sophisticated groove comparable to that of swing. Afro Cuban music I can compare to boxing: something like sparring with an opponent. I think the challenge is in the search for finding the music’s particular needs. The joy is in the discovery.” During this time, while living in and playing around San Francisco, he became absorbed with ‘modern’ jazz. “ Hearing Tony Williams play with Miles completely changed the way I played drums. Hearing John Coltrane and Elvin Jones, and listening to Ornette Coleman’s music changed my whole world. It was like coming home.”
At the age of twenty-five he began playing with Ray Charles. “ We toured 8 months straight every year with the band. Although we often played the same songs and arrangements every night, Ray was always able to make us feel as if it was for the very first time. The drum chair was the best seat in the house really. I only had to watch Ray’s feet to know where and what he wanted the groove to be. What a great school.”
After three years with Ray Charles, Jeff Ballard move to New York City where he found like-minded musicians who were drawing on tradition as well as searching for their own interpretation of playing and expression in music. “Kurt Rosenwinkel, Mark Turner, Brad Mehldau, Avishai Cohen, Guillermo Klein, Larry Grenadier, Ben Allison…and so many others. I started playing music which was of a more personal nature and which drew from an extremely wide palette of influence. I remember, for example, investigating Argentine rhythms and transposing them on to the drumset; or introducing middle-eastern rhythms to my drums. I guess you could say the approach here was in finding the sound equivalent on the drums to something from the original: the dry staccato sound of the dancer’s shoes on a hard wooden floor, the ornamental sounds of bells strapped to the wrists of the percussionists, and then synthesizing my own version of what I felt would fit musically into the drums. Then there were investigations in finding my own things with the drums. Playing and recording with all of these musicians have opened up the opportunity for me to explore my infatuation with sound. It is the sound, not the note per se, which touches me the most. ”Jeff Ballard has also played and toured with Eddie Harris, Bobby Hutcherson, Buddy Montgomery, Lou Donaldson, Mike Stern, and Danilo Perez. He joined Chick Corea in 1999 and continues to play in his various projects. “ I learned so much playing with him during those six years. I encountered thru him a high speed of thought in improvisation and a constant clarity of expression in the music. The chance to play in all kinds of different musical situations like with his sextet Origin or the New Trio or large symphonies brought a heightened awareness of touch to my playing as well. I very rarely used monitors on the gig. It was all about hearing the sound of the instruments themselves on stage.”
Currently Jeff Ballard is a member of the Brad Mehldau Trio, Joshua Redman’s Elastic Band, performs periodically with Corea, and is a co-leader of Fly, a collective trio with Mark Turner and Larry Grenadier. Fly is a sparse unit with a focused approach in which the lead voice often changes instruments, or simply vanishes into a three-way dialogue. “Interdependence is total. We all wanted to pare down and see what we could do sonically with this type of instrumentation. There is an extra harmonic and sonic space compared to other formations. Changing the traditional roles of our instruments is just one consequence of this. Also it allows us to explore our own compositions.” Their latest self-entitled record, Fly, and ensuing concerts have won critical acclaim as best of the year 2004.