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Jeff Ballard: A Life In Music

Renato Wardle By

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AAJ: Had you ever played four-on-the-floor up to that point? I mean you listened to Basie a lot when you were a kid.

JB: Yeah but I didn't realize that, you know, and the teachers I had taken lessons with didn't really put that up in there as something to digest.

AAJ: That's interesting. I had the same experience with four-on-the-floor, where it was portrayed as this Dixieland thing you don't do anymore.

JB: I'll tell you its a big part of the language, so it's not a stylistic thing all though it could be. I think it's a necessary ingredient in building this thing that we're playing. Something in the physicality of it.

AAJ: When I saw [drummer] Elvin [Jones] up close at the Regatta Bar in Boston I got to sit right next to his drum kit and he was laying down four-on-the-floor. I had no Idea.

JB: Most do. Tony as well. I saw him at Vanguard. And that kind of hammered it home. He was dealing with it even at the fastest of tempos.

AAJ: And yet most of the acolytes of Tony Williams' music—well self—appointed acolytes of his style of drumming—would say that four-on-the-floor is not any part of that style of modern drumming at all.

JB: And how wrong that is. At least if it's not the actual sound of it coming out at least its the feeling that it gives you of this solid bass sound, this grounding sound. It's a coloration in what you're playing. You play four-on-the-floor lightly underneath the cymbal and you have this richer sound. I do it on ballads as well. And it really lends a grounded quality to everything. It's like when you crash something and you accent it with the bass drum at the same time but more subtle. It's the same thing but in a riding approach, a keeping of the time, playing a groove deeply, you know?

AAJ: That's fascinating. You're considered one of the most modern drummers around and here you are playing four-on-the-floor. It just doesn't go out of style.

JB: It's true. It really helped make my thing more rounded.

AAJ: So did Lou Donaldson suggest that to you?

JB: Oh, he insisted.[laughs]

AAJ: He insisted?

JB: If he didn't hear it he'd turn around and look down at my bass drum and then look back at me and back down at it. And so I'd have to play it too loud, you know? It was like overcompensating but I was really getting it inside. I mean it sounded horrible I'm sure, it was so hard to do at first but great in the long run.

AAJ: You had to learn to control that on the gig.

JB: Yeah, exactly. But I had to take that home and deal with it for quite a while afterwards.

AAJ: Now did the gig with Ray Charles carry weight, I mean did it help you get gigs in New York?

JB: Oh sure, that's how I got that first thing with that singer and also it kind of helped my getting to sit in with cats, like Clifford Jordan for example. That was because Clifford used to play with Ray. Yes it gave me credibility for sure. "Oh you know how to play a real ballad! Come on up. I tell ya, it was helpful at the beginning but I still wasn't playing so much. I don't know what it was—maybe in the style of the moment. What was popular in 1990, '91, '92 was a much more straight-ahead music and I was still kinda playing whatever I felt like? It wasn't bebop so much even though I was playing a bit with Lou. My playing was more like big band beboppish kind of playing with a dose of Latin America I think. Apart from that what I really liked to play was what was going on with, musicians like [guitarists] Ben Monder and Kurt Rosenwinkle, Mark Turner, Ben Allison, or [pianists] Frank Kimbrough, and Guillermo Klein. I played with [saxophonist] Mike Karn too who was in Ray's band with me. We played with Allison in a band which only played Monk tunes.

AAJ: Now when did you first hook up with those guys?

JB: 1990, when I first came to town.

AAJ: So that was right in the middle of the so-called neo-bebop revolution.

JB: Yeah, I think so. I remember that we weren't really working a lot. At least I wasn't.

AAJ: So the Knitting Factory scene wasn't really happening?

JB: I think it was, but I wasn't really aware of it. I didn't think of it as a Knitting Factory kind of music, I didn't know it. Looking back I think the closest I got to that was playing a little bit with [trumpeter] Dave Douglas, or I guess Monder, in a way.

AAJ: What was it like dealing with Ben Monder's music? Was he playing his real far out explosive stuff at the time or more of the ECM-ish stuff he's done?

JB: It was always pretty far out to me, you know. But it was really easy. Easy because it was, "You play what you play, and I play what I play, and we're playing together." All of these guys I just mentioned were very easy to play with for me—more than easy. They kind of complimented what was going on inside of me, meaning it was familiar. It was a place my stuff could fit into, you know. The attitude was so open with all of these guys, we were all exploring our music, exploring our selves.

AAJ: I definitely hear two sides to your playing. A more bebop or at least more jazz-oriented approach rooted in the tradition of jazz, and then also a side that involves playing with your hands, and eliciting a multiplicity of unorthodox sounds from your drum kit. Did this start coming out in a band setting with those players you just mentioned or did it start earlier, maybe even with the Latin group you played in covering the music of Los Van Van and Irakere back in Santa Cruz?

JB: My playing with my hands wasn't really a result of those experiences. But some of those sounds were definitely coming from playing with tones like a conga drum would have. I was playing with some sort of an awareness of that timbre in the drums you know. Skin on skin. But there was a time playing with Ben Allison and those cats in the Jazz Composer's Collective where there was an actual overt concept which was to be pretty experimental. It was an obvious concept, saying, "OK, let's get some sounds out of our instruments that aren't commonly used, let's play them in a different way than what's the common practice.

So then you start searching around and scratching underneath the drums or playing by keeping the butt of the stick on the floor tom, then pressing it up against the ride cymbal at the same time and hitting that stick, which is bridging both the cymbal and tom, with another stick so you get these combinatory sound: wood and skin and metal. It's just looking for different sounds and different ways to play, pulling out sounds you can imagine. I think that that period of conscious experimentation with our instruments was an opening up into that for me. But also I think again it was always there—that thing of loving the sounds. Hearing the ring pop on the snare drum when just one finger hits it, you know? Then I saw some video of [Philly] Joe Jones playing with his hands and that sold me; that was amazing!

AAJ: Like on that Joe Jones trio recording, he does that solo with his hands.

JB: Oh man, he is a graceful master player

AAJ: He was way more modern than I would have ever imagined when I finally got around to hearing his playing.

JB: Also being in contact with Kenny Wollesen, he's a real sound painter as well. He's very aware of sound and the quality of sound and I think that rubbed off too. We used to live together in San Francisco.

AAJ: Now drummers tend to share information more freely with each other than many other instrumentalists. Was there a heavy exchange of ideas going on between the two of you during that time?

JB: Yeah, but it wasn't so much like, "I got this and you got that, let's play together and work this out." There were of course some of those moments, but it was more just the fact of our living together and checking out his record collection and hanging. Just living together. I think we shared that way rather than, "I'm working on this, what are you working on?' It was cool, it was more wide in life's sense and not just so pointed and, "Let's get to this, you know?

AAJ: Not so Drummer's Collective-ish?

JB: Not so much.

AAJ: So you have really known this group of, I guess you can't say "young lions" as that phrase was already claimed by another group, but definitely you've known this whole group of guys for a long time who are very heavy cats now in the jazz world. Was this a group of guys that you were around that just started putting different groups together and gigging?

Jeff BallardJB: There were a lot of sessions with Ben Allison and Kimbrough. Then the Jazz Composer's Collective began. That was made up of a few musicians that I was working on stuff with, but also at that same time I started playing with Kurt Rosenwinkel, and Mark Turner, and [bassist] Ben Street. Kurt wrote a great batch of music, a lot of which we still play today. I think that the music he wrote was what Kurt had in his head and then as the way we played it developed, it.... helped refined our language a little more at the time you know. We were all more or less at the stage in our playing where we were clarifying our ideas consciously and unconsciously. Things like stretching the time, playing with time. We were pretty close, very much like brothers, a family vibe, a brotherhood. Rehearsing a lot.

But the foundation was already there. On one of the first gigs we played, it was just Ben, Kurt, and I, we played songs like Wayne [Shorter]'s "Footprints, or Mingus' "Reincarnation of a Love Bird or some blues, where the form of the tunes opened up totally and this without our talking about it at all. We were following what the music was saying and it was really Astounding—outros turned into complete songs in and of themselves. I haven't had that much of a hookup like with those guys until my playing with Brad and Larry to tell you the truth. That was a very intimate hookup, like we came from the same egg, you know. It was wild.

AAJ: Did you have similar tastes in music?

JB: No, not necessarily. We all like similar things but we didn't come from the same place. I know Kurt had a lot of David Bowie and you know, more rock, more experimental rock stuff. Ben was coming straight from Duke, and [saxophonist] Steve Lacy, and I don't know what else. Mark listened to prog rock '80s bands when he was younger but when I first met him he was playing just like Joe [Henderson]. He had just gone through a phase of playing just like Trane, working his way through it, you know? It was a moment where we all met and where we were all kind of going through those steps finding our voices.

We all have our own methods and we all got to that spot where you realize, "OK, now we have to shed everything. And kudos to Kurt you know, because he brings in these tunes saying, "I want it like this." He'd give an analogy of wanting the music to sound like it's meat going through a meat grinder; the sound to feel as if your turning the handle. So we'd finally get it there somehow. I think what we have now came out of working that way.

Same as it was with Ben Allison. I just did a record with him these last couple of days. I love his tunes. His method of writing music varies. One way he used to find some music for this record was where he would come over to my place and we would play for a while and he'd tape it and then he'd go home and come back with some of the parts taken out of our playing together and developed a little more and we would try to see how the parts fit together, saying, "I'm doing this Jeff, maybe if you can play something in three and I'll do something in four. Now, we just automatically do that. We automatically, improvising, play by trying to fit parts together. Its kind of like a puzzle fitting together. I love playing that way. When someone asks me how I came up with some drum part for a song, that is the way it happens. Not always by sitting down with the composer and consciously slowly finding a part, but by asking myself in the moment, "What will fit? How do I want it to fit? It can fit uniformly or it can cut across like this or multi-rhythmically, contrapuntally.

Another guy who really influenced me early on in NY, was Guillermo Klein. Compositionally playing. That is really what I'm talking about, trying to find what the song needs, or deciding what would bring more to the song. Playing his music was like discovering and playing my own music but through a filter of his. I guess that could be said for all of these bands I played in and play with currently.

This was happened just after I finished with Lou, after some months or so of doing things with him, till his old drummer got back. I then got a gig with [vibraphonist/pianist] Buddy Montgomery for three or four months playing at the Parker Meridian Hotel here in town. He was one of what I consider the real serious soul-jazz cats. He is such a caring man and I'm very honored to have played with him and call him a friend. He's a very serious cat and playing with him was a great lesson as well. That lasted for a minute and then there was absolutely nothing for me for a long time. That was when a time I was doing all these jam sessions with these guys I've just mentioned and working, but doing other jobs besides music, totally away from music you know.

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