Jeff Ballard – Total Musical Possibilities

With a kind of mental magnifying glass, examine every thing you can, every aspect again and again and again till you know it by heart. That’s technique for me‘ – Siobhán Kane talks to Jeff Ballard ahead of his performance with Fairgrounds on Wednesday.

As a child in California, Jeff Ballard was greatly affected by the sounds of his father’s record collection, wafting through the house; Count Basie, Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sergio Mendez, with Ed Thigpen, the exceptional drummer (who worked with Peterson as well as Billy Taylor) as a particular influence.

Years later, Ballard has used these influences as touchstones to become one of the most celebrated and respected drummers at work today. He studied music theory early on, and played in a big band which served as an apprenticeships of sorts, exposing him to different styles, rhythms and musicians’ work, such as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Tony Williams, and Elvin Jones.

He then starting playing with Ray Charles, in a tour that lasted for for three years, in what he regards as a “great school”, but moved to New York soon afterwards, and began working with other like-minded people such as Brad Mehldau, Joshua Redman, Guillermo Klein, Larry Grenadier, and Chick Corea – all people he continues to work on projects with.

Ballard is a drummer of great looseness, intuition and virtuosity – but for him, it is all about the connection between musicians; interdependence, communication, and a fairground of sound. He talks to Siobhán Kane.

You are coming to Dublin with Fairgrounds, with Lionel Loueke, Tigran Hamasyan, and Reid Anderson. How did it all come about? What is the feeling between all of you?
The project came about simply because I love playing with these guys and they were available to play. Lionel plays in my trio – with Miguel Zenon on alto saxophone. He and I have been playing together for a number of years now. Our incredible hook up was immediate the first time we played together. Then sometime later he asked me to play with him, substituting for his regular drummer, and that musical experience was like an incredible shower of total musical possibilities for me. There was complete abandon and total fun while we played. There was nothing to prove. No worries. Just get up there and play. It was so joyful. I really felt rejuvenated afterwards. An incredible experience.

I first met Tigran in Armenia, where he is from, at a jam session in a restaurant. I think he was around 14 years old, maybe 16 at the time, and he was playing all of this great Bud Powell on the piano. We played ’til something like 6 in morning. I would run into him every now and then over the years but we would never be able to get together to play for whatever reason. He’s asked me to play with him a couple of times. Once in duo, and couple of time in trio but that’s been it ’til now. We’ve always talked about how much fun it would be to play more together, so when I asked if he was free to do the tour, luckily he said yes.

Reid I’ve know for a very long time; maybe 20 years or more. A good friend. We met in NY at the beginning of the ’90s. We’ve played together off and on over the years in various settings. I played on one of his recordings, Abolish Bad Architecture. In the last decade or so we haven’t played that much together at all though. When I would stay at his place when I came to NY – I’ve been living in Europe for the last 5 years – he would always be working on the computer. I never really knew exactly what he was doing. Kind of a “mad scientist” vibe in that music room of his. Finally he was ready to take what he’d built out of the music room and go out and perform with it – by built I mean things like writing the programs which generate the sounds he uses, literally building a musical virtual world of his own design. Heavy stuff. When he said he was ready to try playing it in concert I thought to ask him for this version of Fairgrounds. But in fact he asked me first to play with him. So we’ve already played some. He had written some music for three strings, electronics, and drums. The project was called Rough Mixes. It was great fun to do. Beautiful music.

All three of these guys are incredible musicians. They love taking risks and are totally open to what ever will come musically. So there will be a lot of exploring on these gigs. I’m hoping there will be lots of playing what we do not know. That’s why these guys are playing in this band now.

How much do you feel that technique is a kind of language – and it is there to make music understood, but not be beholden to it?
To me, technique is only something which is needed for one to be understood as best as possible – for one to be clear in what they want to convey. As a language itself, it feels sterile to me.

Some musicians can get too obsessed with technique, particularly within jazz, yet it seems that technique should somehow surrend to the music – does that take years to get that confidence of being able to do that?
I think getting to know how music works is what allows you to “surrender” to the music, not confidence. Getting to know as deeply as possible what it takes to play music, to make sound. You should really know just how the low Bb on your saxophone really truly sounds. What does it feel like in your head and body? What do you know about it? It should be like your favourite old sweater, totally familiar to you. For drummers, it’s really looking at how much is involved in simply picking up the stick and striking the instrument. With a kind of mental magnifying glass, examine every thing you can, every aspect again and again and again till you know it by heart. That’s technique for me.

There are so many rhythms in drumming, all differing in tonal order, what is your favourite rhythm to play?
2 against 3.

You are so connected to so many world rhythms – is there any particular part of the world that you feel drawn to and that you would love to go to, to explore?

When you moved to New York around 1990, and were starting off, you worked as a bike courier, and a bus boy, struggling to get by, was that a very difficult time? Was there a point where you almost felt like giving up?
Yes, after about 4 years of living there and not working much musically I was at the point of leaving. Luckily that same day I was thinking about leaving I got together to play with a couple of friends (Ben Allison and Frank Kimbrough), and with as bad as I felt walking into the room that day, as soon as we started playing there was no question that I was going to continue to stay in town and tough it out some more.

Be-bop was a popular style in New York around that time-did you feel you just didn’t fit in, and was the way that you moved forward was to find your own tribe, so to speak – people like Ben Allison and Guillermo Klein?
I think that back then I wasn’t playing well enough to play with the musicians who were working at the time, not because I didn’t fit in with the way I played. Finding a tribe is kind of what happens when you go to a place isn’t it? Like attracts like.

You have worked with so many great people, so many sidemen over the years; Ray Charles, Chick Corea, Danilo Perez, Joshua Redman – what were the experiences like? It always seems like such an intimate thing – it must be such a subtle experience also.
I’ll simply say that yes I have learned something from all of those great players I’ve had the chance to play with. That’s exactly the way this kind of music used to be learned and should be still, by playing with people who know what’s going on. Having the opportunities to have things passed on by the older players to the younger ones is not as easy as it used to be, and that’s very unfortunate. The older players were closer to the time of the music’s invention – its not that old really, not even 100 years old yet. They had the chance to really experience its original force which with their passing away is going to be lost to the next generations. I was lucky.

Would it be fair to say that Brad Mehldau has been one of your favourite collaborators? It seems like you have had such an intense kinship – did it open you up in many ways?
Playing with Brad and Larry has brought me to some of the highest music I’ve ever experienced in my life.

How exactly did Fly come about with Mark Turner and Larry Grenadier? You once described it as “speedy funk…some whacked out African rhythms, some old rock ‘n’ roll, stark minimalist type of music, avant-garde free music, and some folky rock stuff, and even a chamber music vibe….as well as a throw down jazz trio” – it seems like a place where all of your idiosyncracies can find a home.
Fly came about when Chick Corea wanted to put together a record with everyone in his band, Origin, as a leader. Its called “Originations”, on Concord Records. All the guys had bands and music. I didn’t, so Chick gave me some money to book a studio for the day, and I asked my two favourite guys to play with me. Later I really didn’t want to be the leader so we became a co-led thing.

You have also played with singers, do you really enjoy that different dynamic? Who would you like to play with in terms of singers?
I was once thinking of trying to contact Busta Rhymes to play in duo. That still seems like it would be fun. I would like to play with a male singer, maybe some kind of rocking thing. I wish I could sing.

Have you ever seen the documentary Beware of Mr Baker about Ginger Baker? It’s interesting, because while he is a less than edifying person, he has an emotional pull towards other drummers, and perhaps for the idea of their spirit, the flair, and the genius inherent in some people as they played, such as Max Roach, Art Blakey, Phil Seamen. His esteem is for jazz drumming, and he views it as the epoch of existence as opposed to rock and roll, which he had worked in for so long. What are your thoughts?
No I haven’t seen that documentary yet. Have you read his autobiography? Same kind of stuff is in it as what you describe. Ginger was right, jazz drumming is pretty sophisticated stuff. Some of the most difficult rhythms to play, as you asked me before, are swinging rhythms. Its in the nuance. But you have to consider that back when he was playing there weren’t as many great drummers in his genre as there are today.

What other projects you have coming up over the next while?
As far as next projects, this band is one of them. Jeff Ballard Fairgrounds is really something which will constantly change and reconfigure itself. I like it like that. I can get into whatever kind of music I would like to and with whoever I want. Earlier this year I played at the Village Vanguard with a version of Fairgrounds which included Eddie Henderson (trp), Jeff Parker (gt), Kevin Hays (p and rhodes), and Larry Grenadier (bass). I had friends come down and sit in all week long. I’m hoping that that band will come to Europe next year. I’ll ask Mark Turner to be a part of it too. This particular group that will be coming to Dublin is the latest incarnation. If it goes anything like I’m imagining it, we will have to play again another time. I’m very excited about it. Lots of anticipation. And lastly, I have a CD coming out with the Jeff Ballard Trio with Lionel Loueke and Miguel Zenon on Okey Records Sony in mid-January. It’s called Time’s Tales.

What are you reading, watching and listening to?
Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, the 6th season of Mad Men, and Arvo Part’s Tabula Rasa.

Jeff Ballard’s Fairgrounds play The Pavillion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire on Wednesday 10th July.

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