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Jeff Ballard: A Life In Music

Renato Wardle By

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AAJ: He has two sides to his music. I mean the more experimental side with music like Song X (1985, reissued 2005 by Nonesuch) and his various trio recordings which aren't as popular, and his Pat Metheny Group which is more groove oriented and why it's more accessible to people.

JB: Yeah, that's his original stuff. He is definitely a swinging cat. He's got that trio recording Rejoicing (ECM, 1985) with [bassist] Charlie [Haden] and [drummer] Billy [Higgins]. On one side it's just swinging hard and the other side is completely open and free. Song X-type stuff. He's got quite a few sides to him.

Right now, for me, I'm feeling out what's going on inside my head. Last week we [Brad's trio] played at the Vanguard. I taped a few nights. Listening back, I think that a lot of this, what I call "sophisticated rhythm, you know, the West African stuff for example, could be brought into this band as well. Or you could say it's there waiting to come out. Maybe we can start to deal with, if not patterns or a certain type of polyrhythm that unfolds predeterminedly—I wouldn't really want that—there will be at least the cellular elements of these rhythms that I think is kind of fresh actually, you know? I see it as touching on the behavioral traits to this stuff.

I can't see it now because I am in the middle of it all. Here's one possible example to try to explain. By displacing the beat an eighth note triplet instead of playing on a downbeat or on an up beat, it feels a little "off ; an unfamiliar feeling, you might say. So at the slowest tempos or at the fastest tempos its deceptively "free feeling, as if its not in time. It's not free of course. It's very much in time, but its a kind of a zone type of time. Like a zone defense or zone offense in sports. It is looking at it in a broader sense. A and Z are still the land marks, the downbeats, the "one of each bar or phrase, but the points in between are totally malleable.

AAJ: You guys are playing so much. Like Fly, for example, to me that kind of epitomizes your whole style because it sounds like you pull out all the stops.

JB: Absolutely. It's like pulling on everything that I love you know.

AAJ: I love the cover of Hendrix's "Spanish Castle Magic.

JB: Yeah. A nod to the man.

AAJ: It sounds like the three of you are hyper-connected.

JB: Yeah exactly. Everybody's coming from the same place. I thought to have this kind of a group because everything I had been playing was very thick you know. Chick's Origin band or Kurt's band, Avishai, Los Guachos has eleven cats in it, and then Danilo's music—all of it very thick. And this is completely bare as a unit, but we fill it up big time—we fill it up with space or sound.

AAJ: Sax trios are risky, but you don't get the sense from listening to Fly that it's missing anything.

JB: Right. I don't think it would be right to call it a saxophone trio in a musical sense because a lot of the bass is right in front making the main call or the drums are in front making the main call. It really is a collective in the musical sense. In the truest sense of the word. We sometimes even compose the music together.

AAJ: Are you guys going to be doing some more touring?

JB: Yeah, this fall in Europe. January in the States. I think we'll be back at the Village Vanguard in the beginning of the year too. That's my favorite place to play.

AAJ: So you have played with two of the biggest piano players on the scene, Chick and Brad. Characteristically, how would you differentiate the two of them?

JB: Chick's modern but he's an old school guy as well. The music I play with him, it's modern jazz but it's still got a huge dose of old school quality to it. It's not so much of that hyper tripped out rhythmic aspect which I think is a mark of our time. It's more of just blowing on top of a more grooving thing. and the roles of the instruments don't really change to much.

Whereas with Brad there is also a big big taste of that traditional old school stuff that I like to have and Larry likes to have in the music but also I think with Brad his playing is coming all the way from classical, modern classical music to '80s, rock and roll, [pianist] Barry Harris, [pianist] Keith [Jarrett], the Beatles, etc. He's got a huge pallet that he draws from. So in that sense we're more contemporary, a product of our times. I think it's more explorative, more adventurous with this band as well. And plus, though I was an equal member in Chick's band and we all had a lot a space to play, it was still his stamp on it. Whereas in this band it's maybe more of our stamp that I'm feeling. Maybe you could say Brad is playing less and allowing Larry and I to fill in things the way we feel. It's still very new but that's the kind of sense I getting and I'm loving it!

AAJ: For sure. I just listened to it this morning again and there is a lot of cymbal work and on a couple tunes Brad plays real sparse.

JB: Yeah. That first gig we played with the quartet threw me off, because all of a sudden there are these gaping holes and I am expecting him to fill them up and he doesn't do it. Then when he does do something its totally unexpected, you know. That guy's brain is incredibly fast and his ears are incredibly large. He makes me hear more, meaning I I feel I hear more now than ever before. It's tremendous. What a gift. And I would like to pay my respects to this next step which seems is taking place for me. Actually that week, it was a week in September of 2004, when Fly played the Vanguard and then I had a week off and then the trio played with Brad—it was Brad's gig. I really wanted to 'shed for that week. So started practicing and I haven't stopped since then, man. You put in more to the music and it gives you something back. Respect.


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