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Interviews

Jeff Ballard: Paid Dues

By Published: October 11, 2013
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?


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