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Jeff Ballard: A Life In Music

Renato Wardle By

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AAJ: So he was totally open to all of your hand drumming and extended drum set techniques?

JB: Absolutely! Wanting it all, yeah. All these guys, I mean Chick too. At one point I was bringing so much percussion on the road, you know, it was a gas![laughs] So it was really a chance to explore all that. It was great.

One of the first times I started using other stuff likes bells and the like was with that band with Kurt. I started playing some hand drums or some bells and holding the bells in hands while I was playing the stick at the same time. That was pretty early on. But here and now I get to not just hint at it, I get to really dive in; playing on a Columbian drum for a whole solo or something like that. I was doing that with Danilo too, but that was still drum set sounding like percussion. But here I was using other things in addition to the kit and I almost always have something extra in there now. Right now I'm staring at a bunch of stuff I picked up over the years which is on my walls. Another example—playing with Guillermo Klein's band —Los Guachos. A huge lesson in world music. I mean he's a combination of Tango, Philip Glass and the Beatles, you know.

AAJ: Wow. That's a mix.

JB: So all this stuff in the past, you know, playing weddings, playing Stevie Wonder tunes, playing on the cruise ship, playing pop tunes, playing bossa novas and all this stuff just starts coming back into play. It's great, its just like I couldn't have planned it any better! [laughs] Super lucky.

AAJ: So you have the situation with Josh, and now the gig with Brad Mehldau. He had that trio with Jorge Rossy and Larry Grenadier and you've known Larry forever. How did you get the gig with Brad?

JB: I started a band halfway through the thing with Chick called Fly. It's a co-led thing with Mark Turner and Larry. Chick wanted to make a compilation CD of everybody who was in Origin, to record the different projects we all had going on. But since I didn't have a record or really a band he just gave me some money to go record and play with who ever I wanted, do what I wanted. It was amazingly nice. And a great idea.

So I picked my best friends and the baddest motherfuckers I could find [laughs]. And it was that same kind of brotherly vibe, it was perfect. They're my dearest friends and I really think the highest of musicians. I didn't want to lead the band, I wanted it as a collective although the first thing was under my name. So we called it Fly and started doing some things. Not a lot because all of us were kind of busy so we were doing what we could.

Brad heard and dug the band, dug the way Larry and I played together. I had done one gig for a couple of nights at Smalls with [singer] Claudia Acuña and Brad and Avishai and that was a cool hookup but nothing came from that really. And then there were a couple of other records where Brad was also on the date or on a tune here or there. So we did get to play together a bit before, but then after hearing Fly he said he wanted to play with the band, plus I think he was ready for a change in his music too. So we played as a quartet last year with Turner and after that he asked me to play. We started in the beginning of this year [2005].

AAJ: Is Jorge back in Spain?

JB: Jorge's back in Spain and teaching up there and playing piano and rocking the house.

AAJ: Isn't he a trumpet player?

JB: He started off as a trumpet player.

AAJ: I had heard that he went to Berklee as a trumpet player and hadn't played drums yet.

JB: I think he had started playing drums by then. I remember there was a another fun band that he was a part of called The Bloomdaddies. I loved subbing for him in that band.

AAJ: Yeah, the Bloomdaddies, [saxophonist] Seamus Blake's band.

JB: Yeah, Seamus, [saxophonist] Chris Cheek, [bassist] Jesse Murphy and [drummer] Dan Rieser. And that was super fun too. That again was at the same time as all of these other groups, that was all inside this time frame of four-to-six years. Anyway, Fly—we kept going and we're still going. I'm really happy with that. And next year it seems it like Josh's thing is gonna slow down a bit. I don't know what he's gonna do, I don't think he knows exactly either. It kind of opens up some time, and Brad doesn't work all the time, I mean he's got a nice amount of stuff, but it leaves holes for Fly to start working some more. Brad is the main gig for me but Fly is always there too. It's our own music you know what I mean?

AAJ: So are you guys [Mehldau] recording another record soon?

JB: Yeah, we're gonna record with Metheny, the trio with Metheny in a couple weeks and I don't know what's gonna happen when were done with that.

AAJ: That will be interesting.

JB: Yeah, that'll be fun, I'm looking forward to that.

AAJ: Have you played with Pat before?

JB: No, no.

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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