Jeff Ballard is a terrific drummer who honed his chops early by playing with Ray Charles and then went to New York where he not only joined a scene of like-minded modern players but also became affiliated with some pure jazz legends, such as Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, and Bobby Hutcherson, and some contemporary masters: Brad Mehldau, Joshua Redman, and Guillermo Klein.
But I haven’t known Jeff Ballard’s personality as a leader. He co-leads the trio Fly with Mark Turner and Larry Grenadier, and it’s a terrific band. But Time’s Tales is his first recording as a sole leader. It should be no surprise that the trio here contains two strong personalities, however, in alto player Miguel Zenon and guitarist Lionel Loueke. Maybe I still don’t exactly know who Ballard is as a leader, since these tracks seem so dominated by the personalities of the sidemen, but maybe that’s the answer: Ballard is a great accompanist and truly open-minded musician. Rather than imposing his sensibility, he makes beauty from what is available.
What is possible on Time’s Tales is certainly a function of the particular instrumentation here: no bass player and the highly distinctive African/jazz guitar style of Loueke. On nearly every other jazz recording on which Loueke has appeared as a sideman (beginning with his membership in Terence Blanchard’s band and on recordings with Herbie Hancock), he sounds partly out of place, a world-beat, Afro-pop guitarist who is bending his amazing technique into a jazz context almost against its will. I always figured what Blanchard and Hancock heard in Loueke was a way to refresh or reinvent their band, to give it a burst of the novel. But, it usually sounded to me like a splash of curry in a dessert: intriguing but . . . off.
Ballard has built the sound of most of this recording around Loueke’s strengths themselves, and it makes all the difference.
So, the opener is a Louke composition, “Virgin Forest”, with the guitarist wordlessly and percussively singing as well as laying in a jabbing, almost-kalimbalike guitar part. Zenon’s alto line starts by matching that sound, and ultimately his part in the tune becomes largely rhythmic as well, accompanying Louke’s playing with a jabbing sound of his own. Ballard responds to these sounds by creating his own rattling, prodding, tap-dancing sound: a thrilling and very active prattle of groove. Whooo, what a start to a record.
But how is this band going to do on Gershwin’s “The Man I Love”? Zenon plays the famous melody with bluesy subtlety, and Ballard is quietly busy on brushes behind him. But, with no bass player to hem things in, Louke can accompany his own way, with scratches and flutters, whispers, and his ghostly, almost-acoustic sound. When it’s his turn to improvise, the song gets even more distinctive, with the special qualities of Louke’s style defining the song even more. The same is true on the Ballard original, “Beat Street”, where a rocking backbeat and strong alto melody have that stabbing, percussive quality that Louke represents. The second Louke tune, “Mivakpola”, is a ballad, but one built around a distinctive set of accents, and Ballard again plays a pattern that sounds like hand-drumming.
Time’s Tales has at least two other interesting strategies, however. First is a series of collectively composed songs. “Western Wren (A Bird Call)” is a unison line for alto and guitar (in a very high register), with Ballard playing a whiz-bang brush pattern behind the line. It has the innocent joy of an early Ornette Coleman song. The other two are free improvisations that use the advantages of open space very well. “Free 3” creates real democracy among the members of the trio, giving each instrument a clear area in which to operate. Here as in most songs, all three players are always in the game but they never seem to be in each other’s way.
The last approach this recording takes is a series of somewhat unlikely cover songs. Bela Bartok’s “Dal (A Rhythm Song)” is marvelous — a perfect adaptation of a small chamber piece that the group then shifts into a dark, minor groove for improvising. Then there is a Zenon arrangement of “”El Reparador De Suenos” that plays to Louke’s strength again, giving him a sharp rhythmic figure to play that complements the melody.
Finally, there is the one thing on this recording that does not work at all. “Hangin Tree” is by the band Queens of the Stone Age, and it asks Louke to play a highly rhythmic pattern in a distorted, heavy-metal (lite) style. Zenon intones the anthem-like melody, but the song feels dead in the water from the start: no bass, just a whole lot of thumping and strumming and no conversation between the players. When Louke starts to solo (finger-tapping, I think, believe it or not), it just sounds more absurd. Ack. A noble experiment, or just a huge mistake?
But that misstep should not detract too much from the strength of this band and this music: a rather extraordinary balance of ingredients that makes a leader of all three musicians. And Jeff Ballard? Now we know what he’s truly about.