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Jeff Ballard: Before & After

The in-demand drummer discusses swing, invention, and how to end a song

Jeff Ballard
Jeff Ballard (photo: Dave Stapleton)

Jeff Ballard—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’s been 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. 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 humor, he addressed most of his answers directly to the more than 70 students in attendance.

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring most of the songs in this Before & After:

1. Terry Gibbs
“Back Bay Shuffle” (from Swing Is Here!, Verve). Gibbs, 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. Recorded in 1960.

BEFORE: 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 of that. [Listens more] 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. 

AFTER: Did Mel fit into your 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.

“During my sophomore year in high school it was Count Basie for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I was just living that, dreaming that, pretending I was that.”

2. Donny McCaslin
“54 Cymru Beats” (from Future Fast, Greenleaf Music). McCaslin, tenor saxophone; Nate Wood, electric guitar; Jason Lindner, electric keyboards; Tim Lefebvre, bass; Mark Giuliana, drums. Recorded in 2014.

BEFORE: 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. 

3. Hampton Hawes
“Rhonda” (from Here and Now, Contemporary). Hawes, piano; Chuck Israels, bass; Donald Bailey, drums. Recorded in 1965.

BEFORE: [Listens to full track] He’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.

What first gave it away?

His cymbal work. 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 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.

I guess that’s the takeaway, that he was willing to put a synth drum in that context. 

He wasn’t afraid to try something else.

4. Jo Jones
Drum feature on “Caravan” (from Jazz at the Philharmonic Allstars performance at Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, Holland; YouTube video). Roy Eldridge, trumpet; Herb Ellis, electric guitar; Don Abney, piano; Ray Brown, bass; Jones, drums. Recorded in 1957.

BEFORE: I want to say Jo Jones 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.

Should I restart it?

That would be great—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. 

Ashley Kahn

Ashley Kahn is a 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.