Jeff Ballard is best known as Brad Mehldau’s longtime drummer and also one third of the critically acclaimed FLY trio with Mark Turner and Larry Grenadier. After finally making a record as a leader, perhaps it’s that record, Time’s Tales, that should define Ballard first and foremost, because it makes such a terrific first exhibition of what he’s capable of doing.
Ballard might be new to the whole solo record business, but not to leading a combo; the Jeff Ballard Trio formed in 2006. It’s his outlet to explore the rhythm-rich sounds of African and Latin-American forms, and perhaps not so coincidentally, the trio includes a guitarist from West Africa (Lionel Loueke) and a saxophonist from Puerto Rico (Miguel Zenon). Ballard himself brings his wealth of background in advanced modern jazz and other American music forms, making this one of the more truly idiosyncratic and freshly innovative trios operating in the jazz realm today.
Since Ballard is an exceptional stylist who is capable of handling polyrhythms and complex tempos with ease, and since he heads a drums-sax-guitar trio, it’s tempting to compare his unit with Paul Motian’s bass-less trios with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano. However, the only time the music on Time’s Tales made me think explicitly of Motian was during their rendition of George Gershwin’s standard, “The Man I Love,”, because it’s the one time Ballard’s trio plays in a “straight” jazz way, with the distinguishing feature being how Ballard moves away from being strictly a timekeeper and adds to the tonality, like Motian would have likely done it.
Elsewhere, the very distinctive musical identity of each of these three performers assures that this is a threesome like no other and they’re bursting with ideas. “Virgin Forest” is a Loueke composition played in 9/4, and in using such elaborate percussion and drumming, Ballard creates such a deliciously funky groove and Loueke knows just how to ride it. “Beat Street” is funk that starts in New Orleans but Ballard’s second-line beat is supercharged. Loueke takes the low end and Zenon goes the high end with their interactions, and they blur the lines between comping and leading.
“Western Wren (A Bird Call)” is just as advertised, where the recorded chirps of these birds were transcribed by jazz guitarist Steve Cardenas and made into a thematic pattern played in unison by Xenon and Loueke. With Loueke at the top end of his guitar this time, this combination makes an exotic sound, and Ballard is somehow able to follow along this staggered path.
Even those creative excursions can’t prepare listeners for their cover of a Queens of the Stone Age song. On “Hanging Tree” Loueke steps entirely out of character and rocks out like a heavy metal star. Ballard puts a lot of hitches into his drumming but still sounds like a heavy metal drummer and Zenon assumes role of singer through his saxophone, using good phrasing and control. That track is immediately followed by about the most opposite thing from QOTSA: Bela Bartok. “Dal (A Rhythm Song)” is adapted from a Bartok composition; Ballard provides tonal colors as much as he supplies the tempo, Loueke again works well with Zenon, as he harmonizes with the saxophonist as well as gives shape to the melody.
Zenon was given free reign to come up with an arrangement for the Silvio Rodriguez bolero “El Reparador De Suenos,” and he brings the melody to life. Loueke puts in a festive, delightful solo and Ballard is very inventive with his dynamic and light-footed Latin pulse.
Two group improvs — one short the other long — made it into the record, signaling Ballard’s confidence in presenting the group when it’s in a state of total spontaneity.
Time’s Tales comes off as Ballard striving hard to make a big first impression and completely succeeds. This is an early, strong entry in the jazz debut of the year sweepstakes.
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Time’s Tales will go on sale February 4, from OKeh Records.