Jeff Ballard banging the drum for a jazz revival

Jeff Ballard plays in Cork and Dublin next week. Picture: Andrea Boccalini

Jeff Ballard has played with many of the all-time greats, but is happy to bring his own band to Ireland, writes Ed Power.

JEFF Ballard is the dean of jazz drumming. He’s played with all the modern greats — including Brad Mehldau, Pat Metheny, and Chick Corea. In his youth he also had a stint manning the kit for Ray Charles. It was an education the now 55-year-old will never forget.

“It was one of the best experiences I’ve had in all the decades I’ve been playing,” he reflects. “There are very few at his level. He was a unique person — a genius. He would teach by example.”

Ballard remembers a gig where he became “bogged down” by the handclaps of the crowd. He subconsciously started keeping time with the applause. Later, Charles called him into his office for a word.

“He said, ‘a band is like a house, man’. He goes into this analogy. The horns are the furniture and so forth. And he says, ‘You’re the wall, the structure, the shape of the thing. Just follow me — I don’t move’. I got a spanking in a way. But I learned a lesson. You have to be a good student — sensitive and intelligent enough to grasp it.”

Ballard grew up in Santa Cruz in northern California but today lives in France. He’s looking forward to a forthcoming Irish tour which will coincide with the release of his latest solo record, Fairgrounds.

Recorded on the road, Fairgrounds departs from previous albums. “I brought an engineer on the road and bunch of high end recording equipment. We recorded soundcheck and gigs. I ended up with 40 hours of music. It took me a couple of years to through it and sort it all out.”

Much of the material was assembled on the fly. Every night Ballard and his band would go on stage and see what happened. It was an adventure — for the audience but even more so for the players.

“There were no preconceived directions,” he says. “We played in a beautiful church in Dublin and I remember doing 20 minutes of meditative ethereal music. A lot of it was spontaneous.”

The son of a keen jazz drummer, even as a teenager in California Ballard had a clear idea of what he wanted to do in life. He was a promising high school baseball player but bridled against the machismo of the sport. In the end it came down to a straight choice as baseball training clashed with music lessons. There was never any doubt as to which he would opt for.

“Kiss was around and Chicago. In California we had the Pointer Sisters. Ten years earlier, Sly Stone. But jazz was my thing. I always loved playing. In high school I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to do this or baseball’. I made my decision and never looked back.”

On graduating he got in a van and played solidly for years. Life on the road was his real education. “My first band was a wedding band. We played the standards. Another band was an Afro-Cuban fusion group.

“That was very new to me. It was fantastic. We were in a van driving up and down playing county fairs. It was amazing — I remember sleeping outside, listening to all that rumba. I was 17-years-old.”

Jazz is undergoing somewhat of a renaissance. Music-streaming has widened people’s horizons and sounds that might once have felt intimidating are suddenly a quick shuffle away.

“Jazz’ is a poor word now,” says Ballard. “We need a new terminology. There is a universality to it, though we must acknowledge its African-American roots. It’s incredible man. What is jazz? It’s a question that can really go quite far.”

- Fairgrounds is out now. Jeff Ballard plays the Triskel Arts Centre, Cork, on Thursday; and the Complex, Dublin, on Friday

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