Jeff Ballard: A Life In Music

Renato Wardle By

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AAJ: Doesn't Roy play on two DVDs? The Now He Sings Now He Sobs trio and—

JB: Yeah, the Bud Powell band.

AAJ: I have a couple more questions about Avishai Cohen. You guys have an intense rhythmic connection. I mean he'll start playing percussive rhythms on the shell of his bass. Is that stuff you guys just fell into organically with time, or was it something you worked out together?

JB: It was organic at first. I think he copped that percussive thing from Cachao at first. Israel Cachao, I think. Cachao is a master bassist from Cuba. He was playing that way on the bass that is coming out of the school or the world of Cajon which is Spanish for box. The Cajon is Afro-Peruvian originally I believe. Avishai took that sound, that way of playing on the body of the bass and ran with it you know. But basically the rhythms that we got to were middle-eastern or North African, and Cuban, in their origin. I had a few tapes that the trombone player in Avishia's band, Avi Leibovich, laid on me. Yemenite music. I really sat with that and ate it up. Earlier had I discovered some Sufi Senegalese drumming that changed the shape of my playing big time and that fit perfectly with where he and Jason were coming from.

AAJ: What exactly did it do for your playing?

JB: It gave me a shape of a groove and a tonality which was much more drum oriented than cymbal and snare oriented. So I had this shape or a stretch of a groove. I mean they played these drums with a stick and one hand. That music goes with dancing so its choreographed. That is not to say it's all planned out, but that there are bits or cues where you go into these choreographed phrases and that just fit so well with the North African or the Middle Eastern rhythms I was checking out as well. It's kind of a groove or a shape that's got amazing tension and release to it. It's kind of like an egg rolling down a hill—whooomp-whooomp-whooomp—it's got that stretch to it.

AAJ: Was that your introduction to so-called world music? From Avi Leibovich?

JB: Well as far as that particular part of the world, yeah. But before that there was Brazilian music that my father had turned me onto and the Afro Cuban band I played with before. Also I have always been a huge fan of Bob Marley.

AAJ: So when I listen to your drumming there seems to exist a duality. On the one hand the cymbal-oriented drumming and on the other there exists these musical moments where you're laying down a groove and there aren't any cymbals at all, just drums. Especially with Chick's music on the New Trio record [Past, Present & Futures (Stretch, 2001)] there's a lot of that on there. So that comes out of that African influence?

JB: Yeah. A lot of that is coming out of my discovering this one CD of Senegalese drumming. It's called Tabala Wolof: Sufi Drumming of Senegal (Village Pulse, 1994). And it's from a tribe called the Tabar. The Wolof people I believe. Well, that particular CD just rocked me out man. That one and there was also a Pharaoh Sanders CD with the Gnawa musicians, Moroccan musicians. It all had this commonality of somewhere between six and four rhythmically speaking.

AAJ: Like six over four?

JB: Its kind of in there, its not over it. They coexist. Or there's one meter in one moment, for one beat, and then another there could be another meter, or shape, or feel, in the next moment, the next beat. They all connect and relate. Its' very linear. Its that there are subtle changes from beat to beat: in six, or four, or three, or two. All of that happens in fleeting moments which I guess you could call one bar, or one measure, though they don't think in bars and measures I'm sure.

AAJ: They move in and out of it.

JB: Yeah.

AAJ: That's very different from any popular music here in the States.

JB: I think its a sophistication of rhythm that I think nowadays is coming to the fore, you know?

AAJ: After Chick, at what point in time did [saxophonist] Josh Redman come into the picture?

JB: Just as I got the gig with Chick, Josh had asked me to do something and back then I couldn't do it because Chick just had asked me to play. Origin then finished and the New Trio stepped up and then that started to come to a close after a few more years. And again man, I was super lucky, just as that gig was ending I happened to be playing a week at the Vanguard with Kurt and Josh was there and he asked me if I wanted to play in the Elastic band. That started out as [keyboardist] Sam Yahel's band. They were playing at Small's fairly regularly with [drummer] Brian Blade. Josh took the band to another place. Brian couldn't do the gigs all the time being so busy, so I started doing it, subbing for him. I think I had a little harder throw down, maybe a more insistent backbeat the way Josh wanted it so I became more the first call.

AAJ: Now you've done Momentum (Nonesuch, 2005) and you're all over that. What is it that Josh expects from the drummer? What does he expect from the music?

JB: He just wants you to galvanize the music, you know, and his openness is a great plus. Its not, "Do this and only that way . He knows that's death. He picks you because you add to the music. Because you bring life to the music. Not because you play a certain style per se, you dig? For example, the only thing he has ever asked me to do was not to worry about playing like Brian or like somebody else. Just do whatever I want. It is that open with him. So that was his only expectation. That I bring everything I have to the music.


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