JEFF BALLARD, JAZZ MAN, talks of before and after

JEFF BALLARD, JAZZ MAN, talks of before and after

by Norman Warwick

Jeff Ballard (left)—drummer, bandleader, educator, and intrepid spirit—plops himself down into the chair onstage with a smile and a dark beer. Less than an hour after arriving by plane in Barcelona, he’s ready for a full day of activities: a performance with a student big band under the direction of Majorcan composer/arranger Toni Vaquer, as part of the Voll-Damm Barcelona Jazz Festival; a master class at the Conservatori Liceu, a leading European music institution; and a 90-minute Before & After listening session in one of the conservatory’s performance/lecture rooms, open to all Liceu students and a few members of the public. As the exercise is explained—“how Jeff interacts with the music is what we want to hear”—he tilts his head back and snores. The students all laugh. “That was me on the plane coming here,” he says. For a man at the start of a busy day, he’s in good spirits.

After almost a year and a half of quarantine with his family in Bordeaux, France—and a recent move to Florence, Italy—Ballard was busy through the latter half of 2021. When not performing as part of Brad Mehldau’s long-running trio, he’s been touring with a trio built around his 2014 album Times Tales, with alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón and guitarist/singer Lionel Loueke. (shown right)

He’s also looking toward a full schedule in 2022, co-leading a new quartet with bassist Larry Grenadier that also features guitarist Charles Altura and alto saxophonist Logan Richardson. Later in the year he’ll be piloting his new ensemble, Fairgrounds, with Loueke on guitar and vocals, Kevin Hays on keyboard, and Reid Anderson on bass.

Ballard begins the event speaking about the ambivalence he experienced during the 2020-2021 lockdown. “There were two sides. The horrible side of not being able to play as much. I think I had seven gigs in a year, you know. Normally a year for me would be at least six months on the road! It was really something else not playing. I remember a couple of moments standing outside of my house and thinking, ‘What am I?’

“But I had a nice scene set up in the house in Bordeaux, where I had the drums all ready to go. I could practice and record stuff. What I ended up doing was actually taking a rhythm that I got from a dear brother of mine, Lionel Loueke—a rhythm from Benin—and spent a whole year trying to learn that. I still don’t own it, but it was so inspiring.

“I had a few hours a day to play, but I have two kids who were also at home. I wasn’t such a regular clock-punching kind of guy, but I became one. When my little girl had to take a nap, I just ran downstairs and played. That was always around two-ish, after lunch, and that was fruitful to a degree. It made me much more efficient than I would have been. I had never been home so long in my life ever. I ended up spending a lot of time with the kids and that I’ll not trade for anything. I have a nice hookup with the kids now.”

This was Ballard’s first Before & After with JazzTimes. “Be gentle with me,” he requested. With much energy and humour, he addressed most of his answers directly to the more than 70 students in attendance.

The questions that followed addressed tracks Ballard had recorded thus far in his career and how his relationship with those pieces of music might have altered since. When speaking about Back Bay Shuffle by Terry Gibbs, he recalled that nineteen sixties line up of Gibbs on vibraphone; Al Porcino, Conte Candoli, John Audino, Ray Triscari, Stu Williamson, trumpets; Bob Edmondson, Frank Rosolino, Bobby Pring, Tommy Sheppard, trombones; Joe Maini, Charlie Kennedy, alto saxophones; Bill Perkins, Mel Flory, tenor saxophones; Jack Schwartz, baritone saxophone; Lou Levy, piano; Buddy Clark, bass; Mel Lewis, drums.

When I first heard this, I was thinking maybe Kenny Clarke because of what he plays on the hi-hat when the band is coming in. There’s an older way about it. If I’m listening to the drummer right now, I’m listening to the shape of the swing [vocalizes a swing pattern]. But then I heard his interaction with the horns and Mel [Lewis] would do that. Mel plays linearly, you know. He’s playing with the line of the horn [vocalizes a melodic line] and the band is playing along. He’s weaving inside that stuff. He’s one of the best big-band drummers that ever stomped the planet. 

Let’s hear some more of that. Is that Terry Gibbs? It flattens out. There’s a little different shape to that swing, which is more modern, in my view. It’s not so short. 

Did Mel Lewis fit into your drumming world when you were starting out?

Big time. Early for me was big-band drumming—it was Count Basie for breakfast, lunch and dinner, playing in the garage, or listening in my room to Sonny Payne from 1958, ’59, ’60. I was just living that, dreaming that, pretending I was that. During my sophomore year in high school, I was playing along with these records and I’d bring them to the band I played in at school. 

My father had a live record of Terry Gibbs and man, that was the greatest shit you ever heard. It was so good. Mel was the drummer, with Frank Rosolino and the Candoli Brothers, and it was just super-fun to play along because I could play the parts. It wasn’t so much wild improvisation or the subtleties of improvisation that later became interesting to me. That record, and also to find Thad Jones/Mel Lewis big band [records] was the greatest stuff for me. Mel was from New York and he was coming from real old school and he knew all those old-school guys and was the champion of that. He modernized those roots, let’s say.

The next track Ballard was asked to reflect on was. Donny McCaslin´s  “54 Cymru Beats” (from Future Fast, Greenleaf Music) which featured McCaslin (right), on tenor saxophone; Nate Wood, electric guitar; Jason Lindner, electric keyboards; Tim Lefebvre, bass; Mark Giuliana, drums. Recorded in 2014.

That’s probably Mark [Giuliana] playing drums on that—“Big Foot” Mark. Totally. There’s a couple of descriptive words that come to mind: precision, extraordinary precision, and a certain organic quality to the way it’s played. Early Mark Giuliana had a thing going on with the typewriter [makes typewriter noises]. It’s not digital but it’s pretty damn precise if you want it to be, and Mark likes that analog quality, super-precise but there’s a round, warm quality. Also the fact that he enjoys risk gives a kind of organic quality to his playing. I love Mark, he’s a good friend.

So that’s Donny [McCaslin]. He is a few years younger than I am and we’re both from Santa Cruz, California. It took me a second because there is this thing that Donny has and I couldn’t quite hear it until he got to his altissimo range, and then I heard Donny’s voice. I thought it could have been Chris Potter for a moment because Potter can have a biting edge to his sound, a certain urgency and energy, and Donny has that too. They both can also play beautifully and poetically but their main go-to is that edge. 

What we try to hear when we say, “Who’s that playing?” is their voice, right? It’s like an old friend’s voice on the phone—it’s absolutely the same. Hank Jones sits at the piano and it sounds like the way Hank Jones plays it, and then Chick Corea gets up on that piano—same piano, same room, right after Hank—and it sounds like a totally different instrument. I can get drums to sound like me that are not my drums, you know.

What’s incredible is that when you get your sound together, you’re reinventing that instrument. It can sound like that, like it never sounded before. [To students] That’s great news because that means there’s room for everybody. I didn’t go looking for my sound, not consciously, like, “I’m going to do this and this, and it’s going to be my sound.” It just happens. You’re attracted to a certain type of timbre. Donny’s got the edge to his sound or Mark’s got that big-foot quality in his playing, and they’re into this kind of music.

The interviewer moves on now to Hampton Hawes and a recording of Rhonda (from Here and Now, Contemporary) with Hawes on  piano; Chuck Israels, bass; Donald Bailey, drums. Recorded in 1965. Journalist and Jazzman listen together to the full track before Jeff reflects on his feelings for this music.

Here´s one of my favorite drummers on the planet. This is Donald Bailey. No one plays like him. Donald Bailey is a rare bird. [To students] Anybody heard of Victor Bailey? Electric bass player who played with Weather Report and passed away not so long ago. Super great. Donald was his uncle, and they’re both from Philadelphia.

Donald could play anything—harmonica, trombone. He was kind of a homemade guy: His snare drum was at this angle [uses hands to describe unorthodox setup], his tom-tom like that, the floor tom was like that, and the bass drum was up like this and he had this big fluffy beater. Donald Bailey played with Jimmy Smith, grooved it to death. He’s playing with Hampton Hawes here. He played a long time with Carmen McRae. Soulful guy—soulful, soulful.

His cymbal work said it all. The strange places he puts them. If I’m listening to these guys like Mark or Donald or whomever, I’m listening to their placement. How they sit on the beat, or how they cut up the space. It could sit flat or sharply. It could sit with a nice round feel, a big fat backbeat type of thing. Its shape. I was talking earlier about Mel Lewis’ beat. Talk about shape, guys who swing like that or Billy Higgins or Ed Blackwell—these guys have a straight kind of jam. It’s the same with Donald’s beat. I think of it as a soulful swing. 

So Donald Bailey’s (left) got a really peculiar thing and he’ll lay bombs in the most wrong spots. He’s going [vocalizes an offbeat pattern] and that is not supposed to swing at all. But it’s swinging the shit out of it. It’s like what Paul Motian might do too, you know. It’s not supposed to work but when they do it, it’s like that is the coolest thing to do.

Jack DeJohnette once described his playing like watching a clothes dryer and you see the clothes going around. Sometimes they’re in a clump, sometimes spread out evenly and there’s this red shirt that pops up now and then and goes across all of it. But what Duck plays keeps this circle in the middle, always happening. That’s his beat. That’s his groove.  

He was living in northern California for a while, so I got to see him a lot and I’m honored to say he was a friend. Quick funny story: He was playing with Frank Morgan at a jazz festival, and Duck [Bailey’s nickname] shows up and in his kit, he’s got one of those early synth drums. Silly stuff. And Frank is a bebopper.

I was watching backstage and the concert starts and they’re playing and it’s all great, and then they started “Caravan.” He had that synth drum right there and he starts to play and then he hits the pad to trigger it and it goes [vocalizes loud repeating pattern like a stuck CD]. It was a malfunction of some sort and he’s hitting it again and again, and it’s stuck, and Frank turns around and says, “What the hell is going on?” Finally, he just pulled out the cable to stop it, and then played a great intro. He wasn’t afraid to try something else.

The Audience were next played a recording of Jo Jones´ drum feature on “Caravan” (from Jazz at the Philharmonic Allstars performance at Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, Holland; YouTube video), with Roy Eldridge, trumpet; Herb Ellis, electric guitar; Don Abney, piano; Ray Brown, bass; Jones, drums. This had been first recorded in 1957.

I want to mention Jo Jones (right) because of the material that he plays. [Listens for another minute] Yeah, that’s Jo Jones. At the beginning I heard that bass drum and thought, “Oh, Buddy Rich.” Then the technique came after, and Jo Jones is not on a Buddy Rich level of technician. [Turns to look at screen] We should watch this because if no one knows this, this is a must-see. So, let´s re-start this,..,..

This is “Caravan,” yeah? [To students] So Jo Jones is like a walking encyclopedia of drumming. There are some guys that changed the way the instrument is played, and Jo Jones is one of those guys. He’s part of the original Count Basie band and his way of swinging was super-sophisticated. You could compare Basie with Duke Ellington—Duke is about the arrangement, the orchestrations, the invention, and the beat, and Basie’s about all of that but he’s really about the beat. Here’s this sound of this band that’s coming out of the Midwest where it’s more cool and chill and the music that came out of that was guys building riffs behind the melody, vocalist or soloist. It was kind of hangin’. Whereas on the East Coast you’ve got Fletcher Henderson and other guys writing out all the parts for people to play, right? My idea is if you’re playing this music and adding things in this jam-session type of way, you’re groovin’. The main protagonist in this thing is always the invention of melody. But just as important is the beat, the groove, and how you can help it—I get that feeling from Jo Jones.

[Watches more of video] He has a routine, and if you listen to a lot of his solos you’ll hear all this stuff. So here you have some Jo Jones-isms and he’s very graceful and it’s not, like, closed-eyes playing [mimics a grimacing drummer playing with effort]. He’s open, he’s cool. He’s not: “I’m going to play the greatest, dig into the deepest well, keep reinventing.” No, he’s playing his thing. Look at that face. C’mon! 

[Continues to watch as Jones plays snare with hands] 1957 … the bass drum is going … some changes in tonality. Look where he places his hands. Not just on the drums, but where he’s playing it. This sounds different than that, right? This is Jazz at the Philharmonic. That’s Norman Granz producing these concerts. [Video ends; awed silence.] 

That was almost a master class by itself. I mean, look how modern that was. To me, it’s super-modern

Iraker was a Cuban band, founded by pianist Chucho Valdés (left) (son of Bebo Valdés) in 1973 that delivered“Chekeré Son” (from Chekeré Son, Milestone), featuring  Paquito D’Rivera, alto saxophone, flute, baritone saxophone; Carlos Averoff, tenor saxophone; Arturo Sandoval, Jorge Varona, trumpets; Carlos Emilio Morales, electric guitar; Chucho Valdés, electric piano; Carlos Del Puerto, electric bass; Enrique Plá, drums; Jorge Alfonso, percussion; Armando Cuervo, percussion, vocals; Oscar Valdés, percussion, lead vocals. Recorded in 1979.

I’m not so sure. I know this piece actually, somehow. But I can’t remember. What’s wack about this is that it’s got so many different songs going on at the same time, a whole bunch of different tunes all in one big pot. Even the way they’re soloing and improvising—there’s a moment of some Miles, that Bitches Brew-ish type of world, there’s some Chick, there’s some Herbie, some Hermeto Pascoal. Another one this could be is Airto Moreira. This also reminded me of guys from northern California, and some cats from Oakland—people I know. It’s a weird mix. “Billie’s Bounce” was in there. That bassline, that’s another one. I have to surrender on this one. Give me another

Is this Irakere? Right on, man, thank you. I know that band pretty well, actually, but that wasn’t a tune I’ve lived with. This band for me was so great because they brought some funk and some jazz into the Afro-Cuban rhythm world, which I appreciate more now than before. Before I was more into the rhumba type of Cuban beat, which is a whole other bag.

This was somewhat of a breakout tune for Irakere but it doesn’t necessarily show off Enrique Plá (right) , who is just a wicked badass. He’s another one who kind of reassembled this instrument and made it do some things it hadn’t done before, for sure. Him and Changuito [José Luis Quintana] and younger guys too—El Negro [Horacio Hernández], Steve Berrios, Ignacio [Berroa], those guys—Cuban cats that modernized, brought it up to date. They grew up in this time, hearing Irakere. And this lineup includes the beautiful piano player with huge hands, Chucho Valdés. Wow, a force of nature. Yeah, that was a killing band. That band and Los Van Van are big on my listening list.

Smith Dobson with Bobby Hutcherson recorded
“Love’s Mirror Image” (from Sasha Bossa, Quartet). Dobson, piano; Hutcherson, vibraphone; Jeff Carney, bass; Eddie Marshall, drums. Recorded in 1988.

It sounds like Bobby. [Listens to entire tune with eyes closed] Beautiful. I was listening hard.Yeah. I was enjoying it. First thing I was thinking about was the very last thing they did: not overdramatizing the ending. Many times bands will be like, “Here it comes!” Or they wait, ritard a whole lot. Or they have this big, long cadenza like it’s the time to get the rest of the crap out of your system or something. I have a high regard for tunes that just … encounter the end, you know. It’s not a big windup, it’s not a free kick. It’s part of the game and it lands like it should. [To students] Let it tell you how it would like to land.

I noticed that a lot in that Clifford Brown/Max Roach band. The way they finished a lot of their songs—very plain, just finished the tune, it just has the right sort of little lateness to landing, and if someone’s got something to say at the end they can say it. I’m not saying it’s fragile, don’t touch it, but just don’t strangle it, don’t wrestle it to the ground.

So my first guess is Bobby with Ron Carter, and I was thinking Billy Hart but I can’t fully commit to saying it’s Billy, and I’m sorry I couldn’t figure who the piano player was—I couldn’t identify his voice or what he was playing. 

Oh Smith, no shit. That was Bobby. Who’s playing bass? Jeff Carney doing a ton of Ron Carter. These are all cats from my area. You got me, man. I didn’t even recognize it. I would never have recognized Jeff. I thought maybe it was Ron on a weird day. [Laughs] Jeff Carney is a friend, he was the man about town. And Eddie Marshall, wow. He played with Bobby McFerrin. He’s another very impressive guy. Eddie was one of the first guys I took a lesson with and was the first drummer I saw play with all four limbs doing something differently, modern jazz drumming instead of big-band drumming that I was coming out of. He showed me a lot of what Tony Williams was about. And I never heard Smith from the outside like that!

Smith is a very important guy for me, man. He took me under his wing. I was 16, playing in a high-school band and also in this community college band, and Smith and his wife Gail came to this college, giving a clinic, and I sat in and he said, “Why don’t you come and sit in on my gig?” This is in northern California. He had this gig that was in a club where they had music seven nights a week, and on Tuesdays, just he and a bassist played. So on Tuesday nights I would bring my drums and we’d drive together about an hour to get to the gig, cranking up the music, and we’d listen to Miles and whatever. I was learning a lot just by osmosis, just by hanging around this great, natural player—unbelievably natural, and he sang so well. He’s passed away now.

 Here I was 16, 17 years old and started playing these gigs we called “casuals”—a wedding or a convention or some sort of function. In Boston they’re called “general business.” We played some Stevie Wonder tunes for people to dance to, and he and his wife would sing. He also would do some great Donny Hathaway songs, and he knew all these standards. It was a school for me. It was the greatest school.

Students here need to know how local cats can be the most important teachers. Seriously,absolutely. Smith was huge. The club he’d play at, Garden City [in San Jose], was part of a route that touring groups would play in northern California. They would play a club in San Francisco, for example, and then would play Sunday night at Garden City, and then they’d come down to Santa Cruz, my hometown, and play at this place called the Kuumbwa Jazz Center on a Monday night. Kuumbwa is where I got to see Dexter and Freddie and Paul Motian and all these guys. Smith was a huge part of the local scene. He would cultivate young players and have them play in his bands and he just stayed local. He probably could have gone to New York and made more of an impact, in a bigger sense. Instead he went the family route. His son, Smith Jr., plays all these different instruments very well, and his daughter is Sasha Dobson, who’s a great singer. She’s doing stuff now with Norah Jones. 

An interesting fact about Eddie Marshall is that he’s the great-grandson of … oh, what’s his name? He was the dude who played in Fletcher Henderson’s band and was the guy that brought the sock cymbal up to the hi-hat before it was the high hat…

Chick Corea, a name that frequently appears on these pages released, in 2013,“Galaxy 32 Star 4” (from The Vigil, Concord Jazz). Corea, synthesizers; Tim Garland, soprano saxophone; Charles Altura, guitar; Hadrien Feraud, bass; Marcus Gilmore, drums; Pernell Saturnino, percussion.

chickI’m a little unsure. There’s a lot of Chick-ism in there but I was thinking if it would be Chick it would have a little more bite, a little more … I don’t know what to say. When the note speaks, it can speak or it can SPEAK. Like the velocity of it becoming what it is. Brad [Mehldau] has that too but it’s a different tonality, a different timbre. So that was making me kind of hesitate to say it’s Chick, but then there was a lick of Chick’s or a sound of Chick’s in there. I’m leaning with that, but I can’t commit 100 percent. And I don’t know that piece. 

What made me ask you to stop was that I’m really trying to hear their voice and if I’m listening to it, I’m not listening to his lines only, I’m listening for the vocal quality of the instrument. Even if it’s an electronic instrument, somehow the voice does translate into that. Then I’m listening to the sound of the drums and I’m guessing, is that Lenny [White]? Is this a Return to Forever kind of thing that I don’t know? I’m a little bit at a loss. Why don’t you reveal it?

Oh, Marcus! Killing. Look at that. Right on. I would never have guessed that was Marcus—never, ever, ever, ever. Because I don’t hear him playing that way. I hear him being much more rebellious, more ridiculously explorative, you know. I heard some timbale lick and he’s quite knowledgeable about Afro-Cuban drumming, so it makes sense it’s him, knowing that now.

 But the sound, and that sort of precision … with Marcus Gilmore I hear more touch involved, and I associate more of the element of touch in Marcus’ playing than I heard here. It sure sounded older than it is. I thought Return to Forever, which is the ’70s, come on. 

Another seminal release within Jeff Ballard´s life-time has been Chano Domínguez has been “Freddie Freeloader” (from Flamenco Sketches, Blue Note). Domínguez, piano; Mario Rossy, bass; “Piraña” Israel Suarez, cajón, other percussion; Blas “Kejío” Córdoba, vocals, handclaps; Tomás “Tomasito” Moreno, dance, handclaps. Recorded in 2011.

I know Chano could do this. Chano Domínguez. (right) That would be my guess, because he knows some blues and the whole intro was some pretty cool blues, but it was slippery and loose. But it wasn’t like a Ray Charles kind of slippery loose blues. There was some other thing, extra notes in there. And then it had this live mix with people talking. And no drum kit—just cajón. It’s got the culture of flamenco in it, so I put two and two together. Yeah, swingin’! This is “Freddie Freeloader,” Freddie’s blues.

When I lived in Barcelona for a little bit, I started playing some cajón and I loved that instrument. [To students] Look, with cajón, you’ve got low—graves. [Hits imaginary cajón between his knees, explaining the instrument’s range] Y agudos. High. Ooh! Aah! You break it down to those two fundamentals, basic DNA. You can do anything with that. Then the only other thing you need is place, where you place it [sings rhythmic pattern, accenting and shifting placement of cajón hits]. It changes how it dances, right? So it’s tonal place. You’ve got low and high and you got place. The cajón can give you all that.

It’s kind of amazing. Invention, you know, is a mother… Lionel was telling me about pulling out the wires from a screen window and using those for guitar strings, and if it broke you tied it together and you played around that knot, and that was his first guitar and he got something that came out of all that. The Africans who were enslaved and brought over to North and South America, as I understand it, were not allowed to play music together in most places. They could sing while they were working but they were not allowed to play instruments. No drumming, for sure. So they disguised the instruments, or created ones they could hide in plain sight, like the cajón. They’re sitting on top of a “chair”—which would be a box—and then when the Man was walking by, they’d just stop. Cajón is that kind of a thing, you know. An invention by necessity.

Jeff Ballard was being interviewed by Ashley Kahnthe Grammy-winning American music historian, journalist, producer, and professor. He teaches at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music, and has written books on two legendary recordings—Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and A Love Supreme by John Coltrane—as well as one book on a legendary record label: The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. He also co-authored the Carlos Santana autobiography The Universal Tone, and edited Rolling Stone: The Seventies, a 70-essay overview of that pivotal decade.

Do, having spoken of the before and after, let´s bring you right back to the here and now, to listen to jazz on the radio. In fact if, as we do, you like many kinds of music you might wish to join our friends and colleagues,  Steve Bewick and Gary Heywood-Everett, for a broadcast of their Valentines Suite of romantic jazz. This will include some old favourites from Chet Baker, Miles Davis and Billie Holiday, with some new contenders from John Leighton, Jill Torvaney and Jim McJannet and more besides.If this sounds interesting please share it with your friends.

Join Steve and Gary at

The primary source for this article was  first published in Jazz Times, attributed to Ashley Khan.

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