Drummer and composer Jeff Ballard makes his long overdue, much anticipated debut as a leader with the diverse and wide-ranging Time's Tales. A master of the trio format who anchors the renowned Brad Mehldau trio and is one-third of the inventive collective group FLY with Larry Grenadier and Mark Turner, Ballard here documents his own longstanding trio with guitarist Lionel Loueke and saxophonist Miguel Zenón.
With sounds ranging from forward-looking modern jazz to traditional African and Latin rhythms to heavy metal intensity, Time's Tales reflects the Jeff Ballard Trio's adventurous, multi-faceted identity, which has been honed on stages around the world since its formation in 2006. A landmark release in its own right, the album also arrives just as Ballard is celebrating an important benchmark in his own life, his 50th birthday.
"I'm getting into the middle of my years. So I think recording this project, with this band, makes a meaningful statement. It's a telling of my times up until this point."
A multi-faceted drummer with a keen interest in rhythms from Africa and Latin America, Ballard could have found no better partners for this endeavor than the Benin-born Loueke and Puerto Rico native Zenón. The two have imbibed the rhythms of their homelands and incorporated them into their own expansive sonic palettes, making them ideal foils for Ballard's polyrhythmic approach.
"It's where we meet, for sure," Ballard says. "Their sophistication and awareness of rhythm is so high. Lionel's listening to three different rhythms at the same time; Miguel can hear everything. I pick up something melodically from what they're playing and put it on the drums, and they do the reverse."
That relationship is evident right out of the gate on their buoyant, joyful take on Loueke's "Virgin Forest," which leaps off from a funky African-inspired groove in 9/4. Equally bursting with electricity is the leader's "Beat Street," which begins as a lively parade march in a New Orleans vein, but takes a few unexpected detours along the way.
Zenón provided the arrangement for Silvio Rodriguez's bolero "El Reperador de Sueños," which boasts a subtly modernized take on the original's Cuban rhythms, inspiring a sinuous, impassioned solo from the saxophonist.
The trio does not restrict itself solely to the expected sources for its repertoire, however. The moody "Dal (A Rhythm Song)" is adapted from Hungarian composer Béla Bártok's "44 Duos for Two Violins," and showcases Ballard's most coloristic playing as he crafts an atmospheric environment surrounding the intricate dialogue between Loueke and Zenón.
Most surprising of all, however, is the trio's hyper-muscular cover of "Hangin' Tree" by the hard rock band Queens of the Stone Age. Loueke suddenly channels the distorted ferocity of Jimi Hendrix on the track, revealing chops that haven't come much into play since his early days playing in rock bands back in Benin.
"That's totally me," laughs Ballard about the unexpected choice. "I love that band and I love that vibe. I like so many different kinds of music and I can access a lot of stuff, so that diversity is really starting to come out now."
In contrast, the trio plays at its most tender and traditional on their airy ballad treatment of the Gershwin standard "The Man I Love." As Ballard says, "One might think that musicians from Benin and from Puerto Rico would play this song with a foreign-sounding influence, bending the song into another cultural jacket. But that's not the case - instead, one can hear these musicians' deep knowledge and respectful embrace of the American music tradition. This is a wonderful example of how diverse cultural borders can meet and disappear completely within an embrace."
The trio's inventiveness is highlighted on the two free improvisations, one a brief interlude and the other a glimpse into the future of this still-evolving group that ends the album with a gaze at the horizon of possibility. That vast potential is also clear on the unusual "Western Wren," which uses a National Geographic-recorded bird call, transcribed by guitar great Steve Cardenas, to instigate a round robin of darting, eccentric improvisation. The piece is never played the same way twice, but prompts a look to nature for improvisation, as on the fluttering wings of Ballard's brushes or the echoing forest calls of Loueke's guitar.
Ballard met Loueke while playing with trumpeter Avishai Cohen, and knew Zenón from their work together in Argentinean pianist Guillermo Klein's Los Guachos ensemble. He immediately recognized the potential of their combination. "I have a huge love and affection for the music of Africa, particularly West Africa, and of South America," Ballard says.
"Even when I'm playing jazz, there's a percussive sensibility coming from Africa and South America; I have a natural affinity for that. So having Lionel and Miguel play with me made a lot of sense because of where they're from and the way they play." In the years since, the trio has carved out its own unique sound, melding the free-floating malleability of the classic Paul Motian, Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano trio with the global rhythmic approaches culled from their varied backgrounds.
Both of Ballard's bandmates are among the most innovative and acclaimed musicians on the scene today. Loueke was mentored by Herbie Hancock and Terence Blanchard, and has worked with legends like Jack DeJohnette and Charlie Haden as well as peers such as Gretchen Parlato, Esperanza Spalding, and Robert Glasper. Zenón is a Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellow who has forged a distinctive blend of jazz and Latin American folkloric music. He's also a founding member of the SFJAZZ Collective and has worked with the likes of Bobby Hutcherson, Fred Hersch, David Sánchez, and Steve Coleman.
Born in Newport Beach, California, Jeff Ballard moved to New York after a three-year stint with the legendary Ray Charles, where he immediately began building a diverse resume with artists including Lou Donaldson, Buddy Montgomery, Kurt Rosenwinkel, and Mike Stern. In the late '90s he became a part of the Danilo Pérez Trio and Chick Corea's New Trio and Origin, and later joined Joshua Redman's groove-oriented Elastic Band. In 2003, Ballard formed the collective trio FLY with Larry Grenadier and Mark Turner, which has since released three critically acclaimed recordings.
Since 2005 he has been the drummer for the Brad Mehldau Trio, one of the most renowned groups in modern jazz. In addition to his trio, Ballard leads the ensemble Jeff Ballard Fairgrounds, which exists as a quintet featuring Eddie Henderson, Kevin Hays, Jeff Parker and Grenadier, and as a quartet with Loueke, pianist Tigran Hamasyan, and The Bad Plus bassist Reid Anderson on electronics.