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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.

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