“How many musicians do you know who can work with Ray Charles, Chick Corea, and Brad Mehldau, and also play completely free and make it work?” Lionel Loueke asks rhetorically in a promotional video for drum-master Jeff Ballard’s new release, Fairgrounds.

Loueke’s remark references Ballard’s role in propelling a cohort of transformational bands over the past quarter-century, among them Corea’s Origin band at the turn of the 20th century, Mehldau’s trio after 2005, Joshua Redman’s mid-’00s  Elastic Band, Avishai Cohen’s 1990s Adama band, several Kurt Rosenwinkel groups from about 1994 to 2010.

Over the past decade, Ballard has projected his own groove-drenched sonic conception with several units. One vessel is the collective trio Fly, with bassist Larry Grenadier and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner. Another was Ballard’s trio with Loueke on guitar and alto saxophone wizard Miguel Zenon, documented on Time’s Tales in 2014 after close to a decade of concertizing.

On Fairgrounds, Ballard follows up with a 12-tune program with an all-star group comprising Loueke, Kevin Hays, Pete Rende and Reid Anderson, with guest appearances by tenor saxophonists Turner and Chris Cheek.

Their task, as Ballard remarks in the video, was “to play music that is completely unknown to us. The only parameter I set down is to feel completely free at all times. There are four voices speaking, and one of them suddenly glows. We all gather round in support of that one high voice that comes.”

Did the group on Fairgrounds  evolve from your trio with Lionel Loueke and Miguel Zenon that recorded Time’s Tales a few years ago?

The idea with those guys was melodic rhythm. There really wasn’t a need for anyone else; the three of us fulfilled everything that I felt was really essential. With no bass, no low frequency occupied, there was room for us to fill in or not fill in that empty hole. It provoked a very cool game of equilibrium, that was really evident to me. I felt it physically because of the way we all played.

I had a drumset that was all real skin drums — a beautiful 16″ bass drum from Colombia, drums from India, from Pakistan, the Congo. The drum from Colombia was made for me. It had a nylon, thick-weave strap, and you could hang it on your shoulder. I looped it and put in Moroccan bongos that I had sitting around, and all of a sudden it was a mini-kit! Where the floor tom was, I had a lower drum that I got from Kenya that was a good sound for a while until I beat it to death. I had constellations of drums, with a snare drum and cymbals and hi-hats — so a real melange of culture inside the kit itself. The placement and the tonality of it was incredibly inspiring. All I had to do was wave my arms around in a circle and wicked rhythms came out of the drums.

The band played once or twice a year for quite a few years, and then Miguel got very busy, so I formed another trio with Chris Cheek. That’s a different accent than the Caribbean-African thing. Lionel can embrace rock-and-roll like a rock-and-roller, and with Chris in the mix that element is much more to the fore. Chris brings in a little more Americana on the bebop side, and he has a wah-wah and other effects to create sonic landscapes.

“Freedom was the only obligation”

The Fairgrounds recording was culled from a March 2015 tour in Europe.

Yes. It’s an extension of my wanting to do something where I bring people together and we’re free to do anything we want, so let’s just see what happens. You’re playing a ballad, and all of a sudden I can bust into a bluesy shuffle because it feels right to me. That freedom was the only obligation. We played a tune by Paul McCartney, a few tunes of mine, a tune of Kevin Hays. I picked the songs or moments that I thought had the best shape, and told a story of sorts.

How did Kevin Hays enter this project? His voice is part of the mix.

All these guys are old friends. Lionel is maybe my newest friend. I’ve known Kevin since the early 1990s,. I’ve always had special admiration for his feel and his depth. He was always the swingingest cat, hip melodies, super-fun to play with. He has a wide field. He can sing in a falsetto. He can throat-sing like the throat-singers from Tibet, who get three tonalities at once and sing through the nose at the same time. He sounds like a singer from the 70s, a country-rock band, like Leon Russell. When he sings, it’s not like you hear the voice; you hear the guy.

Did you go on that March 2015 tour with the intention of doing a record?

Yes. I bought a ton of recording equipment, and I brought out [keyboardist] Pete Rende, who can play his ass off, but who also had engineered my first record. He got a real clean sound. I recorded the soundchecks, everything — about 40 hours of music. The idea was to bring it into ProTools to cut, slice, and burn, and try to construct a bunch of Frankenstein monster tunes with the material — hip-hoppy, beaty, a wild animal contained in this strange suit. I could take something from one place with the idea it would be a bridge for another section we’d done in Dublin another night. I used a pitch shifter on “Twelve-Eigh8” — the effect on the overtones made it a whacked-out tune, sort of a blues.

Were you seeing this record as a logical extension of what you did on the first one?

Not at all. This is totally separate. The music I was playing with Brad Mehldau at that time was amazing written-out stuff. I wanted to have freedom away from the page.

Tell me about the title.

“Fairgrounds” was an idea of my agent, who said it’s like a fairground that anybody can be inside of — meaning other players. If I had the Jeff Ballard Group, I’d have to stay with the personnel. With Fairgrounds, I’ve had a version that played at the Village Vanguard for a week with Eddie Henderson and Kevin Hays and Grenadier and Jeff Parker. I had a Fairgrounds that was Lionel and a bassist, and a Fairgrounds that was a duo.

What’s the most recent version of Fairgrounds?

This last one. I’ve played with these guys in separate settings, but the band has not played together since. It’s hard to take them on the road.

You’ve been playing drums with Brad Mehldau since 2005, I think. 13 years. How has that evolved for you?

It’s the highest music I get to play. I hit heights with Lionel and Fairgrounds, and with Cheek, or with Fly Trio (with Mark Turner and Larry Grenadier). But with Brad, there’s this jet blue, extra-turbo something. It’s fantastic. It’s such a rarefied state of being when we’re playing together. A complete understanding. I think that’s because Brad is the focal point. The trio’s got a highly focused lens that the stuff goes through, and we’re similar in the way we like to play. So we’re all going for the same thing. The interaction is quite intense. In my Fairgrounds band, there isn’t that kind of focal point.

So tell me about your other activity.

As a sideman, I’ve played a few tours with Wolfgang Muthspiel, and there are more coming up in the summer. I’ve played four times with Logan Richardson and Joe Sanders — a nice trio. That’s another intense thing for me.

A prolific and international career

How long have you been living in Europe?

It’s going on nine years. Spain for three years, Italy for one year, Paris for four years, and now I’m in Bordeaux. I bought a house, got two kids, and a car. I’m setting down some roots. I’m also teaching in Basel.

I can see the impact of living in Europe on your lifestyle, but musically…

Musically, not much that I can tell. When I was living in Spain, I met some guys, started playing Flamenco, and got some flamenco sense. So yeah, I got something. But what I’m asked to do, it’s because of what I play.

Well, there are a lot of European musics, aren’t there, a lot of streams to immerse in.

I think so. I haven’t reached out, say, to a Nordic scene or an Italian scene, or Eastern Europe or Greece — or the Atlas mountains, where the rhythms and musics are definitely intriguing. I have a few more things to finish off. I want to make a culmination of my West African relationship — meaning a record of something. I’ve got some great soulful connections with that place musically, speaking through to me. When I first heard that music, it changed how I played. I understood it without knowing where one was. I just started playing like that. I had the proof, in a way, two years ago, when I went to a festival in St. Louis, Senegal, and hooked up with a griot, a master drummer. He gave me the thumbs-up. It made me smile from ear to ear for the rest of the year.

But you’ve been open to a global conception of drum expression for 25 years or more. You played Afro-Caribbean rhythms with Danilo Pérez. You played South American rhythms with Guillermo Klein. You played with (bassist) Avishai Cohen’s first band and then with Chick Corea, addressing Middle Eastern flavors.

I think it’s following the enthusiasm. Following the heart. Growing up in California from the late ’70s into the ’80s, I was exposed to Afro-Cuban music and all these different kinds of grooves. Earliest for me was big band jazz, and Count Basie specifically, because my dad loved that band. To me, that was some of the most sophisticated grooving stuff ever invented. It got under my skin, so to speak, and activated my imagination.

Then in high school, when I was 16,  I hooked up with a trumpet player who asked me to play drumset in an Afro-Cuban fusion band in San Jose. For a year, I had no idea what was going on. I had to count to myself, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-1-2-3-4, 1-2-2… I’d count an extra two beats so I’d get back around, because the melody of the beat was two beats off from the melody of the tune. It took a long time to figure out that stuff about clave. But you’re bathed in it all the time. I dove right in — rumba and hearing things like Irakere and Los Van Van, tons and tons of stuff. That really made me a drummy guy — drummy in the sense that I was playing all this music that is fundamentally, first and foremost, drum music. I played in a band that did Reggae parties. We did Earth, Wind & Fire all the time.

Did you go to conservatory at all?

No. I went to Cal State-Northridge for half-a-semester, and beat it. I got a gig in Las Vegas playing for an act.

“It was a time of evolution that made me into what I am now”

Then Ray Charles, and all these bands in New York. I didn’t mention Kurt Rosenwinkel. You were in the middle of a lot of transformative music in the ’90s.

Kurt’s band was fundamental for me. It was a time of evolution that made me into what I am now. I clarified my voice. Up until then, I was just playing like I like to — getting by. It’s all fine. I’m played the gig with Ray Charles, and I knew it by heart. It was easy. I was playing with a bebop band, Tadd Dameron and Hank Mobley tunes, stuff like that, with Larry Grenadier and his brother [trumpeter] Phil Grenadier, this alto player Harvey Wainapel, and Jon Davis, a piano player.

In 1990, I finished with Ray and I said, “Thanks, man, gotta go.” Went to New York, and then hooked up with nobody for a second. Then, because of my relationship with (saxophonist/bassist) Mike Karn in Ray Charles’ band, I hooked up with Ben Allison and Frank Kimbrough in the Jazz Composers Collective, and started playing trio with Frank and Ben (there’s a record called Chant, which is really cool). It was effortless free playing, which I love. Mostly I was just playing, not working. I was a bike messenger. I played with Ben Monder, and then I meet Kurt, and we had this extraordinary hookup. Kurt was asking for stretchy time and maybe a cinematic scope to the sounds. He gave me a little string of bells, the first time I started using bells, and I started collecting all this percussion. It turned into a huge collection. I don’t want to compare it at all in terms of musical greatness, but it’s like what happened with Trane’s quartet when they found each other. We all fit.

What do you think were the vibrational affinities that brought you together? Was it purely musical interest?

The musical hookup made the connection. The friendships we had after that was bonus. But it also makes sense to me. Mark was one of the first guys I played with when I moved to New York. He’s from California, but I met him in New York. He’s one of my dearest, closest friends, one of the best musicians on the planet, and I still play with him. I had to have him on this record.

I feel incredibly lucky, because I love these guys so much. Not because they want to play with me, but because of what they were. I want to have this brotherly love, family vibe where there’s no agenda. It’s just “let’s see what it feels like,” and “of course we’re going to be able to play together – nothing to worry about here.”

Anything you can say about your tenure with Danilo Pérez?

When Smalls opened, I played with Kurt every Tuesday night at Smalls, and then started to play with Guillermo and worked through his music for years on Sunday nights. Guillermo was another shot in the arm, just like the Afro-Cuban band in San Jose. We were into tango and chacarera, folkloric Argentine stuff, big-time. After Smalls began, I was playing there a lot. Avishai saw me, and asked me to join his band, so that association was big for my rhythmic flowering. I played with Jason Lindner’s big band, too. For a while I was playing at Smalls four different nights a week.

Coming in with Danilo was a thing where Avishai recommended me to sub on an outdoor gig in Bryant Park. This was when Panamonk was out. I had the chops to do it. I shedded it, learned all the stuff by heart, played the gig. “Ok, you can play, you know my stuff — great.” Then Danilo asked me to play regularly. I played with him for a couple of years. One time we were in the car, listening to something, and he defined the difference between a lopey straight-8th and a real straight-8th like a straight-8th — which is subtle. But it’s not subtle when you A-B it. It was an “Oh, sit up straight when you play this” kind of thing. It was an awakening.

Both Danilo Pérez and Avishai Cohen were key figures in this merger of rhythms from around the world into the mainstream. At this point, it’s common practice for any drummer in a conservatory to have some command over a lot of these rhythms, but in the mid-’90s it wasn’t so widespread.

I think I relate to a basic shape in a groove; it’s got to come out of that.

I came out of California playing in a Samba-Batucada. My dad played records of this Brazilian music, so I was checking it out early, then playing in the Afro-Cuban band. When I came to New York, I was ready. I could read music, I could play a big band, I could play rock-and-roll. My funk was terrible, and my bebop was not happening. I did have some free playing, however that is, this groovy stuff of a Caribbean or African nature, and klezmer music (because I was playing in klezmer bands, playing weddings). It was a pursuit of interest, and getting gigs.

Functional necessity.

Functional necessity, but going with my accent. Following what I could do best, I guess.

With Chick Corea, it seems you were able to put all your skills to work.

Yeah. That was easy, too. We didn’t rehearse much. We’d rehearse a tune, and then go and play Carnegie Hall right then.

I’ve been super lucky to have been in this moment where this transcendence or moment of energy was just starting to culminate, and then things started to happen. We’ve all grown up in these last 25-30 years now from what was happening in New York around that time. I’m still riding it.

Jeff Ballard, Fairgrounds (Edition Records)

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Centre national du cinéma et de l'image animée | With the support of the Creative Europe programme of the European Union With the support of the Creative Europe programme of the European Union