Jeff Ballard

Jeff Ballard was tired of being a bicycle messenger in New York and nearly threw the towel in trying to make his name, but then music came and saved him...
any people believe that a person’s characteristics as a musician reflect their personal characteristics and this certainly seems to be true in the case of Jeff Ballard. A first encounter with Jeff reveals a very warm, friendly, relaxed and open person and all of these characteristics can be found in his playing too. Many people first discovered Jeff when he played in Chick Corea’s Origin and Corea’s New Trio but Jeff has also played with countless others including Kurt Rosenwinkel, Guillermo Klein, Ben Allison, Brad Mehldau, Joshua Redman and both Avishai Cohens! Jeff’s most recent and possibly highest profile gig has been with Pat Metheny and Brad Mehldau. Jeff spoke to Drummer during a two-night stop at London’s Barbican with the Metheny/Mehldau group and we began by discussing the group’s two albums. “We recorded both albums at the same time. Brad and Pat got together before the recording and Pat sent Larry Grenadier and myself a CD with some sketches of the tunes but we basically went into the sessions cold. We rehearsed each tune, recorded it and moved on to the next one. It worked really well in this case but it’s not my preferred way of doing things. I’d prefer to play the music for a few weeks to see what else the music has to offer or what else we can find inside the music. We recorded more than 20 songs in three days and there wasn’t much direction given at all. It was just take the sketches and bring what you want to it. ”I was kind of expecting that we were going to do multiple takes for each tune and that they may edit things later but it wasn’t like that. A


words: Brent Keefe images: Eckiee

lot of the stuff was first take. There were no more than three takes on any tune. It was very easy.” Inevitably, recorded works change once a band takes to the road as Jeff explains. “Little things change but a lot of these songs are not asking for real extreme experimentation. I’m still finding stuff within the original ideas but, essentially, I’m refining or adding. For example, the very first tune on the second record ‘Night Away’ …that groove has evolved but I haven’t really changed it. I’m now giving more elements of the melody to the groove rather than focusing more on the bass part. Now I’m hearing more globally what’s going on.”

he can hear and execute that type of nuance. If you listen, he incorporates almost anything I do, both rhythmically and melodically. His ears are just astounding. ”Realising how much he hears has, in turn, perked my ears way up. Now, I know that anything I do is going to be heard and that’s fantastic. I care more for nuance now. The more I care, the more it’s answered back. It’s the heaviest bunch of guys I have ever played with. For example, for me it feels like in any given moment one can maybe conceive of three or four possibilities of what to play in the moment. But, Brad… I get the feeling he hears about six possibilities and he then plays the seventh one! So the playing is really in the present; there’s almost no pre-conception.” Remember to Remember Jeff then offered suggestions as to how one might improve one’s ability to hear and react in that way. “It’s a simple thing, as difficult as it sometimes is, but it is purely down to the amount of focus that you can put into it. If you’re there 100% you will hear it. I think sometimes you need a little cue to remember that that level of focus exists but it’s always there. We all have that capability. You just listen hard and focus more. You’re either in it or your not but you can improve your degree of focus. Any time you play or listen to music, you should try and maintain the highest level of focus and, with practice, you can sustain that level for increasing time spans until eventually you always hear it that way. If you listen to and hear what you’re playing that will automatically upgrade things because you’ve embraced what’s coming out of you as well as what’s

Reinforcing The Illusion
Playing in Brad Mehldau’s trio led to Jeff getting the Metheny/Mehldau gig and he clearly enjoys both groups. Ballard offered suggestions as to why he got the Mehldau gig and how it has helped him grow as a musician. “I’m in the best position where now I’m asked to play because of the way I play, not because I can sound like someone else. Brad really liked the band Fly and told me that he liked the way Larry and I play together and that he thinks I have some clarity in my playing. I think there’s a high degree of rhythmic sophistication in the trio. For example, if you play consistently just after the down beats for some time, creating this illusion of a downbeat that is a fraction of a second after the real downbeat, then Brad will hear that and will react by maybe reinforcing that illusion. This allows me to play that way, knowing that




It was black and white. I was playing a wide variety of styles but On The Fly One of Jeff’s prime projects is the trio Fly. the bass drum. I got really depressed when there were no calls. It’s pretty much all original music although we play one Hendrix cover and a few Duke tunes. the not working part of it. I just sat down and whacked the drum really hard and they just started playing. Jeff chooses from: Bass Drums: 18 x 14” and 20 x 14” (Oaklawn. I felt like I was banging my head against a wall of not gigging. If we become much more specific than that. Kansas) 14 x 5” Johnny Craviotto Lake Superior made from a single ply of bird’s-eye maple. It also sometimes has a chamber music vibe to it as well as getting to a real throw down jazz trio. I was putting all of my worth into the phone ringing. At that point I was a bike messenger for a few months because gigs weren’t happening.” band now and we play in that way as well. Those are guys I played with way. It’s easy if you let go and surrender. It was like ‘This is why you are dealing with all this shit’. for me. Playing in Fly.jeffballard. But my being in what I thought was a shitty situation. Then a buddy of mine really hipped me to the fact that I shouldn’t worry about whether the phone is ringing but just worry about my own music. guys like Ben Allison. I put my bike down and didn’t say anything to the guys. trying to be deeper with less said. We had no gigs but we still played. I learned to really value the person in the music. Illinois) Toms: 10 x 9”. It was great advice and very timely. “When I first got to New York be-bop was really popular and it was the style that was being played more. If you look at it in a more general way there are many. I didn’t have a band or a record out like the others so I called Mark and Larry to record some of my music.” GEAR BOX Drums: 1960s Camco Oaklawn (Maple shells) Depending on the music or the size of the bands. has really contributed to my growth as a musician.5” Bamboo barrel shell Yamaha Prototype Cymbals: Zildjian (Jeff is currently working with Zildjian on cymbals that resemble his old Ks) Black and White Although Ballard now holds down some of the most coveted jazz gigs. the idea. It’s easy but sometimes we get in the way of ourselves.jazz Jeff Ballard “It’s easy if you let go and surrender.com I felt I needed to have more of an understanding about bop to add to my whole vocabulary of the drums. Jeff then offered up some tips on interpreting new music. 16 x 16” (all Oaklawn. One reason why I wasn’t working at all was because I wasn’t playing be-bop. Fortunately.flytrio. many more possibilities. To me it sounds like a slice of what’s going on today. Just remember to remember.com www. I would get together and play with guys I still play with now. Jeff explained how the band came to be and spoke of the diversity within the group’s music and his approach within the group. way back. Illinios except for the 10” tom which is a DW) Snares: 14 x 5” Camco (Chanute. “The band comprises saxophonist Mark Turner. not the gig. I was having a really bad day and I went downstairs carrying my bike. he stuck around. For example in funk. 14 x 5. I had this jam session booked for the hour when the bike messenger world more or less stopped for lunch. “My advice to approaching new music is not to apply patterns. as well as playing in Brad’s trio. It changed my mind totally that day and I decided to stick around. non-patterned way of looking at a tune for example is to look at it in terms of how the ‘weight’ falls in it. I got the band together because Chick Corea asked the guys in his group Origin to offer their tunes for a compilation CD he was putting out. There’s some speedy funk going on and some whacked out African rhythms. Back then. It’s a very intimate band and it’s got teeth. is on the ‘one’ and somewhere on that ‘other side’ is the snare. You are focusing in but you’re also expanding your consciousness. There isn’t a saxophone out front with bass and drums as the carpet. It was just the pure desire to play. With Fly. we may end up playing patterns and may not address the tune. Then I started playing too and all that bad vibe completely disappeared. Without realising it. some very stark minimalist type of music. It’s a funny thing. It’s a co-led 22” Prototype Zildjian 20” Old K Zildjian 20” Prototype Zildjian 18” Old K Zildjian 13” Old K Top Hat and a 14” Paiste Sound Creation Bottom Hat Hardware: Yamaha Heads: Remo Sticks: Various Brushes: Flix ‘Classic’ brush www. you’ll find more inside the music rather than playing a fixed part. Just remember to remember” happening around you. where the heavier weight. 14 x 14”. some avant-garde free music and even some simple kind of folky rock stuff. I started to find myself measuring my value by whether or not people asked me to play with them. There is so much space and the first tendency was to fill it up but now I’m trying to play that space… make the one thing say more. bassist Larry Grenadier and me. he certainly paid his dues and almost left New York when work eluded him. Then one day I had an inspiring moment.” D 32 DRUMMER . A more open. helped bring about the revelation of how great and good this all is. Kurt Rosenwinkel and Guillermo Klein. 12 x 8”. the experiencing of it… surrounded by all this manure which I thought was bad. actually served as fertiliser. If you stay in this wider palette where you can grab things from. grimy from the road and really pissed off. was to say much more with less. We’re often asked what the music sounds like.” Many Possibilities Having played with some of the top names in jazz. some old rock‘n’roll.