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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?

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