For several decades Jeff Ballard has been the first call drummer for a host of contemporary jazz's biggest names, notably pianist Brad Mehldau
, with whom Ballard has played since 2005. Of late, however, Ballard has gone it alone. The 2013 debut shows of his quartet Fairgrounds
, featuring electronics musician/bassist Reid Anderson
, pianist Tigran Hamasyan
and guitarist Lionel Loueke
suggested Ballard's desire for greater compositional freedom and experimentation. The Jeff Ballard Trio's debut recording, on the other hand, is a fairly uncomplicated affair on the surface, with Loueke and saxophonist Miguel Zenon
bringing their prodigious wares to the table on a highly melodic selection of tunes that draws from various traditions.
Right from the off, on Loueke's dancing "Virgin Forest" Ballard's lively polyrhythms on kit and African percussion drive the trio. Loueke and Zenon glide between singing unison lines and riff-based accompaniment for each other's fizzing solos. Ballard duly steps up with a cracking solo over sparse accompaniment, sealing the tune with celebratory panache. Ballard's own composition, the dancing "Beat Street" is essentially a feature for the drummer, whose shuffling rhythms underpin some lively blowing from Zenon, and, in a quieter segment, a breezy melodic improvisation from Loueke. By contrast, George/Ira Gershwin's "The Man I Love" sees Ballard on brushes as Zenon and Loueke caress the melody with an improvisational subtlety that matches the trio's tender approach.
The Weather Report
-influenced miniature "Free 1" segues into the heady "Hangin' Tree" by Queens of the Stone Age. Zenon's keening alto, Ballard's thumping back beat and Loueke's metal-ish guitar riffs create a potent brew that stylistically stands alone. On both this provocative rocker and the achingly beautiful ballad interpretation of Bela Bartok's "Dal (A Rhythm Song)" Ballard's trio shares something of the intensity and lyricism of saxophonist Yuri Honing
's Wired Paradise. Zenon's delightful arrangement of singer Silvio Rodriguez' "El Reparador de Suenos" swings with Afro-Cuban grace, inspiring wonderful individual solos and collective groove.
The music covers surprisingly wide terrain; Loueke's elegant "Mivakpola"with Ballard on hand drumscelebrates the beauty of a simple melody whereas the trio-penned "Western Wren (A Bird Call)," owes as much to the unified motifs and helter skelter call and response of bebop as it does to the birdsong that inspired it. The other collectively written number, "Free 3," stems from a moody, slightly abstract space somewhere in the vicinity of trumpeter Miles Davis
' 1970s orbit, gathering momentum and intensity along the way.
Ballard's trio draws liberally from influences across time and geographical space. The exotic, beguilingly fused sounds, however, are much more than the sum of the trio's diverse backgrounds, which inevitably impart African, South and North American colors to the mix. Beyond the more obvious folkloric roots, the trio exudes an openness that embraces the simple and the experimental alike, the lyrical and the abrasive. This persuasive debut joyously disregards any distinctions between the timeless and the contemporarythe three musicians understand that the two are inextricably linked, and herein lies the simple formula for the magic of Time's Tales