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Jeff Ballard Fairgrounds: Dun Laoghaire, Ireland, July 10, 2013

Ian Patterson By

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Jeff Ballard Fairgrounds
Pavilion Theatre
Dun Laoghaire, Ireland
July 10, 2013

Fairgrounds is as good a name as any for drummer Jeff Ballard's new band. The best fairgrounds are places that take you away from everyday humdrum and transport you temporarily to an alternative world where fun, the curious and outlandish, and adrenalin rushes are all part of the continuum. Not all the rides and stalls will appeal universally, but on balance who doesn't have a good time at a fairground? Ballard's quartet was playing only its fifth gig, but the lineup of guitarist Lionel Loueke, pianist Tigran Hamasyan and electronics player Reid Anderson suggested the possibility of heady chemistry, which was for the most part delivered throughout an absorbing performance that covered wide stylistic terrain.

The untitled opening number proved to be a dramatic calling card, with the intensity ebbing and flowing in suite-like waves that lasted over 30 minutes in total. With Ballard laying down an infectious groove and Loueke adding a funky guitar riff, the vibe was James Brown-esque, even before Hamasyan and Anderson entered the picture. The pianist was the first to slip the reins, alternating between chordal progressions and short rhapsodic phrases. His repeated motifs served as signposts leading to exploratory diversions and single notes punctuated the journey, like little exclamations of delight. Throughout, Ballard lent light yet dynamic support, at one juncture maintaining a metronomic pulse between crash and ride cymbals.

Loueke's bluesy solo brought bite as well as more linear melodic flow before the quartet entered a looser jam segment—angular and dissonant. Just when it seemed that the path had become a little obscured, Ballard's driving hip-hop rhythms fused with layered electronic motifs to forge a new direction. Loueke and Hamasyan felt their way into what was essentially an intense rhythmic dialog between Ballard and Anderson as the quartet sound swelled. The energy slowly dissipated, giving way to a delightfully delicate ambient passage that formed a bridge into a guitar-led, slow-burning blues. The music grew epically, with Loueke singing the motif wordlessly.

It might have provided a stirring climax but there was to be one final twist, with Hamasyan laying down a mantra-like funk vamp—a launching pad for Ballard's dancing New Orleans shuffle. Gradually, the music receded into the nothingness from whence it came, provoking well-earned applause.

The sonic contrast between standard jazz instrumentation and Anderson's MIDI/Monome/laptop armory lay at the heart of Fairgrounds' sound, and this was particularly felt during "Gazzelloni," multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy's tribute to Italian flautist Severino Gazzelloni. With Ballard providing the backbone, Anderson's intense minimalist patterns were mirrored to a degree by Hamasyan, whose embellishments—when he was able to engineer a digression—veered closer to the be-bop idiom of the original. Loueke, who demonstrated great patience throughout the entire set, chose his moments to intervene and his solos were all the more effective for their rationing.

Anderson's beautiful composition "Miró," from his second outing as leader, Abolish Bad Architecture (Fresh Sounds New Talent, 1999) provided the most lyrical and understated quartet interplay of the set. Anderson's occasional synthesizer-like chords and Ballard's deft accents underpinned Hamasyan and Loueke's flowing solos, but so delicate were the performances that any applause before the song's end would have seemed intrusive.

The more Anderson was featured, the more experimental the group sound and the more animated Ballard's drumming. There was just occasionally the sensation that the music didn't have a clear direction. However, this was perhaps to be expected in a new band taking its baby steps. It should also be read as a positive sign—a natural consequence of a band dedicated to exploring sounds as opposed to just repeating them.

A psychedelic vibe colored the penultimate number with Ballard's propulsive rhythms in contrast to the minimalism around him. Hamasyan's mini-xylophone and Anderson's sympathetic Monome-generated sounds were punctuated by Loueke's crying guitar and the whole effect was not unlike the Grateful Dead/Merl Saunders soundtrack to the 1980s TV series of The Twilight Zone—only more animated.

The haunting Armenian melodies of Hamasyan's "The Spinners" from his widely acclaimed A Fable (Verve International, 2011) gave way to an extended quartet workout with Loueke and then Hamasyan—at his most sweeping—at the heart of the action. Ballard switched between mallets, hands, brushes, sticks, and finally stick and brush together, bringing a wealth of subtle textures to the 18-minute closing extravaganza.

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