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Jeff Ballard: A Life In Music

Renato Wardle By

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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.

AAJ: You've been practicing all the time? Is that common for you, I mean do you have time to practice?

JB: On the road, I'll make it. It's all so inspiring. I'm digging the root work nowadays, just playing triplets around the drums, two and four on the hit hats, four-on-the-floor, or three against four with the hi hat and the snare while keeping time. Just kind of cleaning up my act in a way and its leading to more clarity I think. That and fluidity. It's just so timely and I'm digging it so much. On the gigs now I go an hour or two early before sound checks. Just on this last tour I had my own drums with me because we were on the bus and I'd go early and set up the stuff and just shed man. It's just right. I'm coming in at the time to hit and I'm already sweating and well-lubed and ready to go. I highly recommend that. [laughs] But you gotta have to want to do it. If you force yourself and you don't like it, its kinda tough you know. But I'm enjoying it big time. I highly recommend it.

AAJ: You know a lot of guys get jaded about music and practicing. I mean you hear all the time, "Oh, I don't practice anymore." So I find it impressive that you have such enthusiasm for it.

Jeff BallardJB: It's the best man. And it's on the beginning side of it. For instance, a stroke, how does it feel to come down on a "one, a downbeat? How does it feel to strike on an upbeat? Its very cellular work. I think of it as cell work. It's very rewarding. I mean I feel relaxed and ready to go whereas before it was like I could of course play but maybe the consistency wasn't as high. I have more expectations now. I want more from my playing. It needs to be. That's why I think its working for me.

AAJ: Who are some of the up and coming drummers that you're into?

JB: I don't know too many guys because I'm kinda wrapped in my own world you know. But there are some, I think Matt Chamberlain is a motherfucker. And I also saw this drummer with Me'Shell NdegéOcello, Chris Dave. He's an astounding cat. And of course there are guys like Nasheet Waits. I think Kenny Wollesen's up there. Brian [Blade] is one of my favorites. Eric Harland, Eric McPherson, bad cats. Bill Stewart is another one. "Tain is kind of the one that was in front of us all, more or less, but he's still kind of the new generation. He's like one of the elder new generation guys. Those are guys that I can think of off the top of my head. They all have a great touch to their playing. I have heard that there are some other guys out there but I haven't heard them playing yet.

AAJ: Are there any particular records you're listening to right now?

JB: Well, I'm gonna get the Trane One Down, One Up: Live at the Half Note (Impulse!, 2005).

AAJ: Yeah, I picked that up, it's unbelievable.

JB: Great. I wanna check out the Monk and Trane At Carnegie Hall (Blue Note, 2005). But let's see, it's pretty wide. I've been listening a lot to the stuff we just did last week, but I'm also always listening to Paul Motian or to Tony [Williams]. Right for a minute there I was just buried in Miles. It's killing, its called Festival Juan Les Pins, it's kinda hard to find actually.

AAJ: What is that? Is it one of the early Tony things?

JB: No man, [drummer] Jack [DeJohnette].

AAJ: Oh is this the so-called lost quintet with [bassist Dave] Holland and Chick?

JB: Chick's on there and Dave Holland and Wayne [Shorter].

AAJ: I wasn't aware there was a recording of that group.

JB: Man, its so super bad; from 1969. Super bad.

Its funny, I haven't listened to too many of the new things. I've heard Chris Potter's new record, that was nice. But I'm still loving Ornette's Golden Circle in Stockholm (Blue Note, 1965), Old and New Dreams (ECM, 1979). So I'm digging that and then its back to Miles again. But then also I've discovered there's a classical pianist named Andre Kissing and listening to him play Scriabin was revelatory. Also I am interested in Debussy's music at the moment. Its' kind of opening up more for me in the classical world where I haven't listened too much to that before.


Selected Discography

Pat Metheny/Brad Mehldau, Metheny Mehldau (Nonesuch, 2006)
Ben Allison, Cowboy Justice (Palmetto, 2006)
Tim Ries, The Rolling Stone Project (Concord, 2005)
Brad Mehldau Trio, Day is Done (Nonesuch, 2005)
Joshua Redman Elastic Band, Momentum (Nonesuch, 2005)
Kurt Rosenwinkel, Deep Song (Verve, 2005)
Fly, Fly (Savoy Jazz, 2004)
Kurt Rosenwinkel, Heartcore (Verve, 2003)

Chick Corea, Rendezvous in New York (Stretch, 2003)
Guillermo Klein, Los Gauchos III (Sunnyside, 2002)
Kurt Rosenwinkel, The Next Step (Verve, 2001)
Ted Nash, Sidewalk Meeting (Arabesque, 2001)
Chick Corea/New Trio, Past, Present & Futures (Stretch, 2001)
Maria Schneider, Allegresse (Enja, 2000)

Kurt Rosenwinkel, Enemies of Energy (Verve, 2000)
Chick Corea/Origin, Change (Stretch, 1999)
Ben Allison, Medicine Wheel (Palmetto, 1998)

Photo Credits
Top Photo: Ben Johnson
All Other Photos: Juan-Carlos Hernández

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