Jeff Ballard: A Life In Music

Renato Wardle By

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AAJ: Was that when you were a bike messenger?

JB: I was doing that and waiting on tables and stuff.

AAJ: Now when did you go to Spain and why?

JB: That was during the time when there wasn't much going on for me here and [drummer] Jorge Rossy, pretty much the main aqueduct which connected the New York scene with Barcelona, was the cause. He was and is a huge force in that regard. He had gotten some work for Ben Street and Kurt to come out there and play with him, but he couldn't do it at the last minute so I went out there to play for a month and it was great. Then I came back here and there still wasn't anything. Because I had made some contacts with some schools and some other players over there, I decided to go back a couple months later.

I stayed there for a couple months more, just living and teaching there. I came back home after that and then I did a tour with [guitarist] Wolfgang Muthspiel and a couple other various gigs. I then went back out there for another three months or so to live with a lady I had met there, to see what was going on between us. During that time I woodshedded quite a bit and played quite a lot. We came back here and things really started kind of moving forward at that point you know.

AAJ: Was that your first time living outside the US?

JB: No. When I was younger I lived in England for about half a year or so, or a year.

AAJ: Those are typically eye-opening experiences. Did you speak Spanish when you went?

JB: No, I learned it as we got to know each other.

AAJ: So that is where you met you wife or your girlfriend?

JB: Yeah, my wife, we're married.

AAJ: Lourdes right?

JB: Yeah, Lourdes Delgado, she's from Barcelona. She's a great photographer actually.

AAJ: She does the pictures for everything these days, it seems. So what happened after you came back from Spain?

JB: I got the gig with [pianist] Danilo Perez.

AAJ: How did that come about?

JB: I started working with Avishai Cohen. I had known Danilo through working with the same circle of guys but he plays with in Boston. I had sent him a tape once but nothing came directly out of that. I really liked his playing, that's why I sent it. He was playing with Larry and [drummer] Dan Rieser, who I saw in Barcelona, and I felt like I'd like to play in that band, so I thought I would put it out there.

I played with him for the first time with Grenadier and [saxophonist] David Sanchez, while I was living in Spain. But at one point, some time later in New York, he needed a sub again, this was while he was playing the music from his record Panamonk (Impulse!, 1996). I really 'shedded that music and that was very instructional for me. It showed me that when I put in all of this good effort, writing out my own parts, you know, my own charts to the tunes—by really digesting the music, really knowing it, that when the gig came about I was able to eat it up. I came in without a rehearsal and we just played and it worked really well, with ease. And then I started playing with him regularly.

AAJ: Did you meet Avishai Cohen on that gig?

JB: No . He approached me earlier when I was playing at Small's [NYC jazz club] with Kurt. We had a regular gig on Thursday for some years there. But all of this was around that time I've been talking about. It was a time, maybe something like four years or so, of serious development of music for me. So Avishai was around then and [pianist] Jason Lindner. Hooking up with them was another kind of a super-intimate hookup. Very high. Jason and Avishai. Super bad cats. So I was playing in Avishai's band and at the same time I was playing in Danilo's band. I stayed with Danilo for a while. A couple of years I think. Then a manager of Chick [Corea] heard Danilo's trio at an IAJE convention. Avishai gave him a tape and Chick dug it and so Chick's group Origin came out of that. Origin was pretty much most of Avishai's band at that time.

AAJ: Wasn't Adam Cruz the first drummer in Origin? At what point in time did you come in and take over?

JB: About four months after it began.

AAJ: And that was it. So from there on out you were the drummer for Origin?

JB: Right.

AAJ: How long have you been playing with Chick now?

JB: Probably going on about six years now.

AAJ: I caught the gig at the Berklee performance center at the Berklee College of Music in Boston in the spring of 2002. It was unbelievable.

JB: It was super high! I mean that was another impressive experience for me, playing with Chick you know, playing with someone that was top shelf from the moment he walks over to the piano. All of sudden, you know, boom, put it up there and it's super serious, super connected and very fast mentally speaking. The other guys in the band were [trombonist] Steve Davis, [saxophonist] Steve Wilson, first Bob Sheppard, and then Tim Garland on tenor, and Avishai. I loved that music and that band, it was great. It's on a DVD [Rendezvous in New York (Image, 2005)] that's out. There's ten DVDs in the set, with Origin and the New Trio. It's got some great Roy as well.

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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