Charlie Ballantine Group, June 16, 2018: Shows I’ll Never Forget

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Noce Jazz Cabaret in Des Moines, Iowa: Guitarist Charlie Ballantine recently placed himself in a very small room — one reserved for jazz musicians who have recorded Bob Dylan songs. The company, while few in number, is impressive: Bud Shank, Gary Burton, Gerry Mulligan, Keith Jarrett, Jim Hall, and even Duke Ellington have each arranged jazz versions of Dylan’s songs.

Ballantine’s new album, Life is Brief: The Music of Bob Dylan, was issued earlier this year. His quartet is now on the road supporting the release, and they recently performed at the Noce Jazz Cabaret in Des Moines, Iowa. The evening’s set list mirrored the Life is Brief release, both including some unexpected Dylan selections. “The Death of Emmett Till” was the most surprising, with the quartet using the melody of this dirge to create an intensely moving soundscape.

For the most part, the two sets contained subdued, thoughtful adaptations. Often a number would begin with Ballantine’s solo guitar work exploring various avenues of the chord changes before the rest of the group would join him. This meant that the song’s melody was not overtly stated at the start of each piece. Even Dylan fans in the club frequently had to think hard about what number was being presented. The songwriter might have appreciated this approach to his material, since Bob himself is notorious for radically rearranging his own songs in concert.

Using eight varied foot pedals, Charlie Ballantine achieved his desired guitar sound by running his modified Fender through phase shifters and echoplexes. The ability to loop the guitar’s sound allowed Ballantine to repeat a pattern that he had just played, letting him then perform a different guitar part along with the looped line, as if separate instruments.

It is said that Jimi Hendrix played not only his guitar but also his amps. The comparison occurred to me as Ballantine meticulously adjusted his foot pedals. This seemed intentional, as his playing was extremely chord based during the early part of the night. The guitarist backed away from using accessories during the second set, allowing the audience to better hear Charlie Ballantine’s ability to play single line runs on his well constructed solos. The sound of the guitar itself emerged, sometimes reminiscent of Howard Roberts’ jazz recordings.

The other instrumental voice of the quartet belonged to Amanda Gardier’s alto sax. Balancing the electric guitar work of the group leader, the sound of Gardier’s unadorned saxophone provided an acoustic counterpoint. Amanda Gardier excelled with a solo on the ballad “Shenandoah,” which was so lovely that the audience intentionally refrained from applauding afterwards, so as not to break the mood. The saxophonist’s flexibility on her instrument was later demonstrated when the group went from “Masters of War” into “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” The fierce defiance of “Masters of War” brought out Gardier’s inner Coltrane, while “Hattie Carroll” found her floating above the waltz cadence, a la Paul Desmond.

The rhythm section included Jesse Wittman on upright bass, and drummer Chris Parker. Each man has been with Ballantine for some time, in the studio and on the road, and their comfortable relationship shows through musical interplay. Parker and Wittman provided solid backing, and each player was given well received solos.

During the second set, Charlie Ballantine told his Des Moines audience that he felt justified to include songs that Dylan had recorded but not written. For this reason, the group had earlier played both “House of the Rising Sun” and “Shenandoah.” The quartet closed with two more songs that Dylan did not write, but are part of his more recent Sinatra-era recordings. “My One and Only Love” and “I’ll Be Seeing You” demonstrated the connection between diverse musical genres and artists.

Both Bob Dylan and Charlie Ballantine simply love to interpret great music.

Charlie Ballentine setlist, Des Moines, Iowa 2018:
She Belongs to Me
A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall
The Death of Emmett Till
Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright
Masters of War
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
One More Cup of Coffee
It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)
The Times, They are a-Changin’
The House of the Rising Sun
Blowin’ in the Wind
My One and Only Love
I’ll Be Seeing You

The Charlie Ballantine Group is now on tour. Tour information and the newest album, ‘Life is Brief: The Music of Bob Dylan,’ are available at his web site. Tom Wilmeth is the author of ‘Sound Bites: A Lifetime of Listening,’ which has earned raves from the likes of Gary Burton and Hal Holbrook. It’s available now from Muleshoe Press via Amazon.

Tom Wilmeth

Tom Wilmeth

Tom Wilmeth, an English faculty member at Concordia University-Wisconsin since 1991, has given presentations and published widely on the topics of literature and music. Author of 'Sound Bites: A Lifetime of Listening,' he earned a Ph.D. at Texas A&M in College Station. Contact Something Else! at
Tom Wilmeth
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