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Jeff Ballard: Paid Dues

Jeff Ballard: Paid Dues
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[ Editor's Note: The following interview is reprinted from George Colligan
George Colligan
George Colligan
b.1969
keyboard
's blog, Jazztruth]

I recently did some teaching in the U.K. at the Birmingham Conservatoire; I was the lone guest clinician/guest performer. Last year, roughly around the same time of year, I teamed up with drumming great Jeff Ballard. I had kind of forgotten that I had recorded an interview with him. So it's over a year late, but hopefully my jazztruth readers will forgive me.

Jeff Ballard is really what jazz drumming is all about: MUSIC! He really colors and drives the music and the musicians; it's never about "look at me!" It's about making the music go forward. Ballard has technique, but it's ultimately not as important as the team effort. (Although I saw Ballard do almost 40 minutes of solo drumming in Denmark a few years ago, and that was astounding.) This is why he's been so in demand for years, having played with the top names in jazz, including Joshua Redman
Joshua Redman
Joshua Redman
b.1969
saxophone
, Brad Mehldau
Brad Mehldau
Brad Mehldau
b.1970
piano
, among many others. I was lucky to sit down with him and pick his brain a bit during our stint in Birmingham.

George Colligan: Can you talk about the difference between technique and music?

Jeff Ballard: I figure technique is a way to play music so it's understood. That's what it's for. The technique is not something for itself. It's something to have so you can play music very clearly. It's a tool; it's not an aesthetic. And I think maybe in there is what you were asking about, in a way. There's a difference between [them], and I think that some folks confuse them. And I think it comes from the fact that in this day and age we have accessibility to lots of technique. It's not something, in a way, that you kind of earned. Before, I think you earned technique, you earned it by discovering secrets—like how does Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
1917 - 1993
trumpet
get some sort of fingering, or Art Blakey
Art Blakey
Art Blakey
1919 - 1990
drums
's got a certain kind of flick, [or] a certain kind of way of playing a shuffle that no one else plays. And that's his technique of how to play, and that's his own, so he's developed it to get it to sound the way he wants the music to sound and do what it's supposed to do. And so someone has to go out and earn it, and that means they've got to go and check out Buhaina, and look at it that way, rather than just get it from a book or a Youtube video. I think there's something in the effort that you have to give to get that technique, which connects it to the making of music rather than just getting the ability to play something. The technique is to make it all clear and understandable. To me, that's what that is.

GC: Do you think a lot of drummers get hung up on technique?

JB: Yeah, I think it's kind of the nature of the instrument—same with saxophones or the guitar—maybe those kinds of things where the technique is not so difficult to get to. You can sound impressive just by having some technique on those instruments. It's a hazard area.

GC: How would you advise a young drummer to get past that? To think more musically?

JB: That would be the answer. If they can think more musically, then the technique is at the mercy of what's musically asked for; it's not reversed. The music is not choked and pushed and pulled into shape by the technique. The technique is not dictating how the music is, the music is dictating. Like Art Blakey coming up with a shuffle, the way he felt it is dictating what his technique will be so that he can achieve what he wants. So if you can keep at the forefront of your mind that this is at the service of the music you're playing, not at the service of your ability. You're not trying to prove your ability; you're completely surrendered to the music. It tells you what to do. And I think cleaning it up, and playing it as well as you can is the technical aspect of it, rather than think of technique as how many beats per second can you play multiple strokes in one hand, for example, or if you can play one time against another time. I don't care. I tell a lot of people this—I don't care what you can do, I care why you do it. That to me is what's most important.

GC: Can you talk about what you were saying in the master class the other day about, say, taking an African rhythm or some other folk rhythm and making it your own? That's what you were talking about, right?

JB: Talking about trying to get out of style. If you are thinking in style, it's kind of a box. You have to play a certain way, a certain pattern. To me that's kind of superficial, it's a label of the style is what's first looked at. Rather than look at what's the nature of all these musical elements inside of this thing you're calling a style, what are those elements and how do they relate to each other? How do they behave towards each other? For example, I was using a rhythm from Argentina, it's called a Chacarera, and it's in 3. Basically, we talked about tonal order, so you have low tones and high tones—break it down to the [simplest] aspects. And in Chacarera you have beat one, beat two, and beat three. On beat one you have a high, dry sound, and on beat two you have a low, muted sound, and on beat three you have an open low tone. The open low tone is the most resolving sound, tone. That's its characteristic. So if it's muted and it's low, it's kind of the same resolution, but it's a little less than if it's open. And a dry tone or a high tone is not a resolving tone in comparison to the low tone, so we're only dealing with two tones and their characteristics. Then you also have the characteristics of each beat, and it ¾ the strongest beat is one. The next least is beat two, and the lesser strength beat is beat three. It's going home.

So if you look at Chacarera, it's kind of reverse character roles for the tones and their placement in space. So beat one has a high dry tone, beat two has a muted low tone and beat three has the "sit." So you're sitting, tonally, on beat three, but the space is asking to go to one. One comes and you answer it with a dry tone, which doesn't sit so well like a low tone. So you have these inverted characters in activity relating to each other, pushing and pulling with a kind of gravitational pull. I think of it like that, so you've got gravitational pulls or characteristics with tone and where they are in the bar, in the space. So basically, if you look at a reggae tune, or a samba tune, or a James Brown tune, there's tonal order to these tunes. By tonal order, specifically right now, I'm referring to the tones of the drums—how they're sitting. So for funk, basically you have the bass drum on one, beat two you have the snare drum, beat three could be one or somewhere around there, beat four can be backbeat as well on the snare drum. So those characters and those spaces kind of line up evenly. And in the world of reggae, it's kind of upside down. So instead of saying, "I'm going to play funk," I'm going to say "I'm playing this kind of rhythm that has this tonal order, has this kind of characteristic, this way of dancing." And the same with reggae—I'm not going to play reggae 'cause it's got this pattern to it; I'm going to play this groove that's got this tonal order, and it dances this way. For me, that was a door out of a dilemma, a kind of modern-day dilemma. I feel when we have so many kinds of musics that's available—again, like technique, all of this is available to us now. So it's a dilemma because there's too much and we don't have enough time to really do it justice, living it and understanding it very very well. So I think the first thing to try to get very close to the nature of what it is, is by analyzing [and] taking it apart. In this sense you see tension and release in the groove sense. And that's a big step towards capturing the nature of a tune or of a style without calling it a style and leaving it at that—you really get into the music then, and start playing the music, and "Ooh wow! I see where this comes from!" because of the way the weight is, the gravity is playing in the groove.

GC: But do you feel like that's the way to make anything your own, to say "These are the guidelines, but this isn't the script"?

JB: Yes, I think so. It was my open door out of. As long as you keep the integrity of the location of these tonalities, you're keeping the integrity of the groove in a sense. A rhumba sits a certain way with the bassist, he sits on [beat] four often. The weight isn't sitting on one. If someone walked into a room and they didn't really know that rhythm, the way that thing dances, they might think it's one. It's a funny thing. Or like in Chacarera—ONE two three, ONE two three. If someone walked in they might hear "oom oom BOP, oom oom BOP" or "oom OOM bop, oom OOM bop." Depends.

GC: That rhythm reminds me of the Tanguios, I think it's called.

JB: It's another [rhythm] in flamenco.

GC: Yeah.

JB: Yeah, I mean, it's in three. There's a lot of this rhythm. It's two over three. There's another rhythm in Colombia. (claps two, sings three on syllable "boom")

GC: Would you say that comes from Africa?

JB: I would say it's an African thing, yeah. Two over three.

GC: Have you traveled any place to study world rhythms?

JB: Not really. Somehow I have a connection with it. I've been to Brazil, I've been to Argentina, [and] I've been to Peru. I haven't been to Cuba, haven't been to Africa. But I have the most experience with bands from Cuba and Africa, actually, and Brazilian as well. But I have not been there, and I've been dying to get there. I want to go with someone so I can cut to the chase and get right in there.

GC: Right. What do you think about paying dues as a musician? What were the dues that you paid?

JB: I'm a dues-paying-dude, I tell you. I paid a lot... I dig, you know. I think it really gives you a better appreciation of the gift that you have, to be able to play. I was lucky in the beginning, I had a good feel so I could play with some good players, but a lot of the music I was playing was weddings, conventions, we'd play dance music. We'd play jazz standards as well but it was all for a function. And then later, some more gigs, and that was cool. But that was work for a while; I was making more money doing those kinds of gigs. Then after I went on the road, I was paying dues another way—traveling seven months out of the year and not coming home, and that's old school trench work, in a way. It was the best, you know—it was really great. But it was dues in that sense—you get on the bus, next day you get on the bus, next day you get on the bus, next day— sometimes you don't even sleep in the hotel, you hit and you run, and that's some dues. Then another kind of dues... you've got to keep your energy. It's the same show every night—almost—but it's different every time. Same music, but it's like it's the first time. Then there's other dues, like [being] in New York and starting off and it really not working much at all—working as a bike messenger, a bus boy, and not having much money, borrowing money from my friends or my parents and just kind of scraping along— it took me a few years, took me about four or five years before I was working and able to survive off of my playing.

GC: What year was that?

JB: I lived in New York in '90. I started playing in '94, starting playing a little bit more in '95, started playing with people like Danilo Perez
Danilo Perez
Danilo Perez
b.1966
piano
in '94, something like that. So paying dues, I think—I guess you could say it's very important, but you could also say it's not absolutely necessary. But I do think it makes you better rounded, more humble, a greater awareness of what it is that we're doing because you can appreciate it more... maybe. It's a tremendous gift that we have, to be able to do this. Play what we feel, and have someone say "Please come and do that, and let me give you some money for it, and we'll treat you well." That should never be forgotten. I think, in a sense, dues would help hammer that home. I think it helps. It brings maturity to your playing. It brings value to what you do. In that sense, it's a vital thing. It's great.

GC: Can you talk about some of your favorite sidemen gigs over the years? Are there things that you feel like you do differently depending on the situation? Are there things that you feel that you do the same regardless of who you're playing with?

JB: Yeah. I used to say I play the same, but I don't, really. I do play differently in different situations. Great sidemen gigs for me are the last great ones that I've had. Danilo Perez was a good one, Chick Corea
Chick Corea
Chick Corea
b.1941
piano
was another good one, playing with Ray Charles
Ray Charles
Ray Charles
1930 - 2004
piano
was tremendous, Joshua Redman—playing in the Elastic Band with Sam Yahel
Sam Yahel
Sam Yahel

keyboard
was really fun, different kinds of music I could play. And then with Brad [Mehldau] as a sideman was great too, it opened my ears up and having someone to have so much interaction with—I'd never played with anybody that had so much interaction. Everything I did was used and thrown into the...Josh does the same, Mark Turner
Mark Turner
Mark Turner
b.1965
sax, tenor
does the same, a lot of guys do the same. But with Brad it was really, really intense and I really grew to prefer that way. So... what was the other part to that question?

GC: What things do you do the same and what things do you do different?

JB: Okay, so I got to play with Lionel Loueke
Lionel Loueke
Lionel Loueke
b.1973
guitar
's trio with Massimo Biolcati
Massimo Biolcati
Massimo Biolcati
b.1972
bass
, and we played his music and rehearsed it and then went to the gig, played the gig. And the tunes were not easy to digest, you know? So at a certain moment, whoops, I'm like, "Where are we?" because they're really stretching it out. And then I realized that, actually, it didn't matter. He didn't mind being lost. He was digging it. And when I realized that, I played what I heard without worry, 'cause he wanted it. So it felt like a wash, a big shower, because I used to play a lot of that music where you play what comes to you, and I enjoy that a lot. And to have it so immediate, every reaction connected to what was going on, that it could go anywhere. It was going somewhere. Once I got to play with another guitarist, Jeff Parker
Jeff Parker
Jeff Parker

guitar
. He plays with Josh Abrams—great bassist. I call up Jeff, he came from Chicago, both of them came from Chicago and I said "Do you want to get together, run through some stuff before we hit? I'm open." He says, "Nah man, let's just go and play." So we go there and it was literally that, from the first note to the last note nothing was predetermined. And it was truly—I went through like a car cleaner, you know, I went through this thing... I ended up getting from the drums and walking and stamping my feet, and just pulling out shit that I hadn't gotten to in a minute. "What else can I do to make a sound or an emotion?" And it never got tired; we were playing for an hour straight. A couple of things stopped, but maybe three episodes of just open music. And I felt so refreshed afterwards. So those are memorable moments, memorable gigs. There are others that are in time, and high moments of playing on top of form, and playing that way as well. But this was special to me because I felt cleansed afterwards. Others are like "Wow," this was powerful and great, and I'm proud in a way that it happened and worked, or amazed at the magic of it, where it takes you. It all worked really well, the music's talking to you. In this way, when it's free, it's new, it's something new and moving, so those are memorable.

GC: Would you say that basically now you do the gigs that you want to do?

JB: Basically I get to do the gigs that I want to do, I can choose. And what's the best, what's the blessing for me is that I'm asked to do what I do. I'm not asked to come in to do like somebody else. They ask me to come in and do what I do. And I can't ask for any more than that.

GC: How would you advise a student to make it through the gigs that are not necessarily a "spiritual experience"?

JB: Pick elements in the music that you can work on. Like if it's a dance beat or something, make it the most exact, baddest, super funkiest backbeat that you can, with the best intention of playing that way. If you're playing "Have You Met Miss Jones," and they're playing in a very straight way, don't try your stuff. Make that tune, the way it's being played, as best as you can, as you feel it to be in that way. You can learn from that. If you always try to put your own spin on it, I think it's- -I don't know. I don't agree with that. The music's not really asking for it in this situation that we're talking about. If you know that that's the way these guys play, you must make the music like that. If you don't then you're outside of the music and you're in your own band, it's like you're a different band up there. It's very often that I hear young groups of four or five people and it sounds like four or five different bands up there. Everybody's got their own agenda, or everyone's worried about making sure they get their agenda taken care of, when really it's all together. It should be altogether. Like eighth notes, when they're swinging their eighth notes, that could be very close to being the same. And horn players, you've got to leave room for the rhythm section to comment on what you're playing. That will give you ideas. If you're playing a solo and you want to be solo, okay, well we'll stop playing. You'll be "solo," you'll be alone. There's your solo. You're not alone. So don't forget that. I don't care what you're playing.

GC: So when you get onstage, you have no agenda?

JB: I hope not. I try not to do. I think I do and I try not to have it. And when I find it getting there, meaning I kind of smell a rat somewhere, I would definitely stop that. I'll stop it. Go to the music, it will tell you what to do. If you try to tell it what to do, I can't get behind it as much. I can't get behind it with as much faith. If I think of something, if something comes to me, I can get behind it much more easily than if something comes to me and I'm going to put it in. If I think of something beforehand then I should not play it. If I find something to play, if I encounter the thing to play, I can really trust it because it came to me without preconception, without ego needs, without limitations. It's just there; right there, one hundred percent, clean of any kind of attachment or anything. You encounter it. Then you do. The thing with this music is velocity—speed of thought. You've got to be so fast. And you're only going to be fast when you're super focused.

GC: Would you say, too, that there's a certain amount of fearlessness that you need to play that way?

JB: Yeah, fearlessness and faith. You've got to trust the other guys, that they're able to understand that thing that you're doing, or trust that the music can take what's going on, trust yourself that you can make it come out. But you should really be clear—the more abstract in a sense, or the more complex you're going to play, the clearer it should be. So it's understood what you're doing. It occurs to you when you do it. You're not going to understand what I just said, because I kind of just... you know... you left it up to the ear. Sometimes it's good, but we're talking about making a statement.

GC: Because we're talking about all these things that are very important musically, do you feel like there's a point when you don't really need to practice?

JB: I'm not so sure, man, I'm not so sure. I mean I go through stages when there's time and I can practice, I practice. If I don't have the time, I'm hoping I'm playing. But I regret not having the time to practice sometimes. When I haven't been playing and I haven't been practicing and I start again, the first thing that I notice that's lost is my velocity of thought. Imagination is not all hopping and springy; it's kind of lethargic and a little sleepy. So sometimes the technique is actually better for the first few days. I'm not so sure, man. I still feel like I have some stuff to practice myself, and I've been doing it for more than 25 years. I'm not done, so therefore I have to practice.

GC: Where do you see yourself in five years? Or 10 years?

JB: Hopefully with maybe more gigs behind me. [laughs] At this time right now, I really want to play every day if I can—I work a lot, and I go home and chill for some weeks, and I come back. I want to [play] as much as I can, and a variety of stuff. I'd actually like to try some other genre. I'd like to play with a singer again—in fact specifically I'm kind of digging Leon Russell, and some Southern Funk, swampy tunes that have a message, some guide tunes, in a way... I don't know. That's kind of where I'm thinking at this point. I'm not really sure exactly what I want to do. The jazz that I'm playing now is great, I mean I'd like to play with a couple other guys like Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter
b.1933
saxophone
[or] Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
b.1940
piano
. But I can't really complain about the jazz, but I would like to try some other stuff. With this trio with Lionel and Miguel that I have, that's some other stuff and I'd like to explore that a bit more.

GC: In this trio with Lionel Loueke and Miguel Zenon
Miguel Zenon
Miguel Zenon
b.1976
saxophone
, are you the leader?

JB: I'm the leader. But it's an equal thing musically speaking. I put it together, I get the gigs, [and] so I put my name on it. I did the same thing with FLY
FLY
FLY

band/orchestra
in a way, but I gave that up. It's a collective. I don't want to be the leader.

GC: Right. Are these your first efforts leading?

JB: Yeah. I did something years ago when I first got to New York, some quartet work, but nothing as a regular thing.

GC: I see. And do you find it to be very different from being a sideman?

JB: The only difference is that I know am concerned about taking care of the guys, whereas I didn't have that concern being a sideman. As far as other things like talking on the mic or getting the set together, I can do it or we can together, I'll ask them. So it's still kind of collective. The only thing I need to know is that they're cool, they get their money right, they get their rest, the travel isn't so bad, and the food is good, and that's that basically. If they're happy with that and they're happy with the music, then they'll play great.

GC: Anything coming up that you want to mention?

JB: Well Fly is going out on tour in July, all through Europe. Got some teaching done at La Spezia, we're teaching in Lugano, in Switzerland, and some various gigs in between. Apart from that, just various gigs—September my trio goes out, first part of September, end of August. January I'm playing with Brad at the Vanguard. New Fly record coming out in January as well.

GC: Did you find it was hard to play with Brad after he used Jorge Rossy
Jorge Rossy
Jorge Rossy

drums
for so long?

JB: No, no, 'cause he asked me to play as me. Nah, it was like a glove, I just came right in. "Give me more of what you're doing." Okay, fine. He was really embracing. That was really great—really great. Yeah, I mean I've played with Larry Grenadier
Larry Grenadier
Larry Grenadier
b.1966
bass
for 25 years, more or less, so that's easy. I think when you get to a level where we're at, we can play with each other and the communication is really very good. Sometimes no, but I think more often than not the communication is really good. With Brad it was like a house for me, like a big couch, and it just worked well. I think one thing that makes it work well for us is that all three of us really dig the older music as well. In what we play, we play a ballad, we really play a ballad like an old-school ballad, in a certain sense. Like I'm playing four-on-the- floor on a ballad. It's a walking ballad, we try to play it like that, don't try to change it and make it new. The newness comes because we are young, or new in this sense, so it's going to be young. You don't need any extra work in that way. Swinging, we feel the same way—we're going to play an arrangement, drum and bass kind of thing. I think it still has old school to it as well. I think that's why slipping into that band was easy for me.

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