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Jeff Ballard: Paid Dues

George Colligan By

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[ Editor's Note: The following interview is reprinted from George Colligan's blog, Jazztruth]

I recently did some teaching in the U.K. at the Birmingham Conservatoire; I was the lone guest clinician/guest performer. Last year, roughly around the same time of year, I teamed up with drumming great Jeff Ballard. I had kind of forgotten that I had recorded an interview with him. So it's over a year late, but hopefully my jazztruth readers will forgive me.

Jeff Ballard is really what jazz drumming is all about: MUSIC! He really colors and drives the music and the musicians; it's never about "look at me!" It's about making the music go forward. Ballard has technique, but it's ultimately not as important as the team effort. (Although I saw Ballard do almost 40 minutes of solo drumming in Denmark a few years ago, and that was astounding.) This is why he's been so in demand for years, having played with the top names in jazz, including Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, among many others. I was lucky to sit down with him and pick his brain a bit during our stint in Birmingham.

George Colligan: Can you talk about the difference between technique and music?

Jeff Ballard: I figure technique is a way to play music so it's understood. That's what it's for. The technique is not something for itself. It's something to have so you can play music very clearly. It's a tool; it's not an aesthetic. And I think maybe in there is what you were asking about, in a way. There's a difference between [them], and I think that some folks confuse them. And I think it comes from the fact that in this day and age we have accessibility to lots of technique. It's not something, in a way, that you kind of earned. Before, I think you earned technique, you earned it by discovering secrets—like how does Dizzy Gillespie get some sort of fingering, or Art Blakey's got a certain kind of flick, [or] a certain kind of way of playing a shuffle that no one else plays. And that's his technique of how to play, and that's his own, so he's developed it to get it to sound the way he wants the music to sound and do what it's supposed to do. And so someone has to go out and earn it, and that means they've got to go and check out Buhaina, and look at it that way, rather than just get it from a book or a Youtube video. I think there's something in the effort that you have to give to get that technique, which connects it to the making of music rather than just getting the ability to play something. The technique is to make it all clear and understandable. To me, that's what that is.

GC: Do you think a lot of drummers get hung up on technique?

JB: Yeah, I think it's kind of the nature of the instrument—same with saxophones or the guitar—maybe those kinds of things where the technique is not so difficult to get to. You can sound impressive just by having some technique on those instruments. It's a hazard area.

GC: How would you advise a young drummer to get past that? To think more musically?

JB: That would be the answer. If they can think more musically, then the technique is at the mercy of what's musically asked for; it's not reversed. The music is not choked and pushed and pulled into shape by the technique. The technique is not dictating how the music is, the music is dictating. Like Art Blakey coming up with a shuffle, the way he felt it is dictating what his technique will be so that he can achieve what he wants. So if you can keep at the forefront of your mind that this is at the service of the music you're playing, not at the service of your ability. You're not trying to prove your ability; you're completely surrendered to the music. It tells you what to do. And I think cleaning it up, and playing it as well as you can is the technical aspect of it, rather than think of technique as how many beats per second can you play multiple strokes in one hand, for example, or if you can play one time against another time. I don't care. I tell a lot of people this—I don't care what you can do, I care why you do it. That to me is what's most important.

GC: Can you talk about what you were saying in the master class the other day about, say, taking an African rhythm or some other folk rhythm and making it your own? That's what you were talking about, right?

JB: Talking about trying to get out of style. If you are thinking in style, it's kind of a box. You have to play a certain way, a certain pattern. To me that's kind of superficial, it's a label of the style is what's first looked at. Rather than look at what's the nature of all these musical elements inside of this thing you're calling a style, what are those elements and how do they relate to each other? How do they behave towards each other? For example, I was using a rhythm from Argentina, it's called a Chacarera, and it's in 3. Basically, we talked about tonal order, so you have low tones and high tones—break it down to the [simplest] aspects. And in Chacarera you have beat one, beat two, and beat three. On beat one you have a high, dry sound, and on beat two you have a low, muted sound, and on beat three you have an open low tone. The open low tone is the most resolving sound, tone. That's its characteristic. So if it's muted and it's low, it's kind of the same resolution, but it's a little less than if it's open. And a dry tone or a high tone is not a resolving tone in comparison to the low tone, so we're only dealing with two tones and their characteristics. Then you also have the characteristics of each beat, and it ¾ the strongest beat is one. The next least is beat two, and the lesser strength beat is beat three. It's going home.

So if you look at Chacarera, it's kind of reverse character roles for the tones and their placement in space. So beat one has a high dry tone, beat two has a muted low tone and beat three has the "sit." So you're sitting, tonally, on beat three, but the space is asking to go to one. One comes and you answer it with a dry tone, which doesn't sit so well like a low tone. So you have these inverted characters in activity relating to each other, pushing and pulling with a kind of gravitational pull. I think of it like that, so you've got gravitational pulls or characteristics with tone and where they are in the bar, in the space. So basically, if you look at a reggae tune, or a samba tune, or a James Brown tune, there's tonal order to these tunes. By tonal order, specifically right now, I'm referring to the tones of the drums—how they're sitting. So for funk, basically you have the bass drum on one, beat two you have the snare drum, beat three could be one or somewhere around there, beat four can be backbeat as well on the snare drum. So those characters and those spaces kind of line up evenly. And in the world of reggae, it's kind of upside down. So instead of saying, "I'm going to play funk," I'm going to say "I'm playing this kind of rhythm that has this tonal order, has this kind of characteristic, this way of dancing." And the same with reggae—I'm not going to play reggae 'cause it's got this pattern to it; I'm going to play this groove that's got this tonal order, and it dances this way. For me, that was a door out of a dilemma, a kind of modern-day dilemma. I feel when we have so many kinds of musics that's available—again, like technique, all of this is available to us now. So it's a dilemma because there's too much and we don't have enough time to really do it justice, living it and understanding it very very well. So I think the first thing to try to get very close to the nature of what it is, is by analyzing [and] taking it apart. In this sense you see tension and release in the groove sense. And that's a big step towards capturing the nature of a tune or of a style without calling it a style and leaving it at that—you really get into the music then, and start playing the music, and "Ooh wow! I see where this comes from!" because of the way the weight is, the gravity is playing in the groove.

GC: But do you feel like that's the way to make anything your own, to say "These are the guidelines, but this isn't the script"?

JB: Yes, I think so. It was my open door out of. As long as you keep the integrity of the location of these tonalities, you're keeping the integrity of the groove in a sense. A rhumba sits a certain way with the bassist, he sits on [beat] four often. The weight isn't sitting on one. If someone walked into a room and they didn't really know that rhythm, the way that thing dances, they might think it's one. It's a funny thing. Or like in Chacarera—ONE two three, ONE two three. If someone walked in they might hear "oom oom BOP, oom oom BOP" or "oom OOM bop, oom OOM bop." Depends.

GC: That rhythm reminds me of the Tanguios, I think it's called.

JB: It's another [rhythm] in flamenco.

GC: Yeah.

JB: Yeah, I mean, it's in three. There's a lot of this rhythm. It's two over three. There's another rhythm in Colombia. (claps two, sings three on syllable "boom")

GC: Would you say that comes from Africa?

JB: I would say it's an African thing, yeah. Two over three.

GC: Have you traveled any place to study world rhythms?

JB: Not really. Somehow I have a connection with it. I've been to Brazil, I've been to Argentina, [and] I've been to Peru. I haven't been to Cuba, haven't been to Africa. But I have the most experience with bands from Cuba and Africa, actually, and Brazilian as well. But I have not been there, and I've been dying to get there. I want to go with someone so I can cut to the chase and get right in there.

GC: Right. What do you think about paying dues as a musician? What were the dues that you paid?
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