CD Review: Jeff Ballard with Lionel Loueke and Miguel Zenon - Time’s Tales

Jeff Ballard with Lionel Loueke and Miguel Zenon - Time’s Tales
(Okeh 88883741072. Review by Andy Boeckstaens)

Drummer Jeff Ballard grew up in California listening to a wide variety of things, and realised at an early age that “the challenge is in the search for finding the music’s particular needs”. During the last quarter of a century, Ballard has played with people as diverse as Ray Charles, Eddie Harris and Chick Corea and now, at 50, he is part of the co-operative trio Fly (with Mark Turner and Larry Grenadier) and has been a member of Brad Mehldau’s group for almost a decade.

Such versatility is stamped all over Time’s Tales, which presents a true coming-together of styles delivered by three musicians from very different parts of the world.

It begins with Virgin Forest, composed by Benin-born Lionel Loueke, who adds his guitar and voice to the clattering drums of the leader. Miguel Zenon from Puerto Rico provides a fluid solo on alto sax, but this tune – like Beat Street - is really all about rhythm. Here and elsewhere, Ballard pushes every limb to the limit to create a barrage of percussive effects.

Free 1 and Free 3 are improvisations (there is no Free 2). The first is under a minute of stabbing guitar, free-flowing sax and fast percussion, and little more than an introduction to the glorious powerful chords and thrashing drums of Hangin’ Tree (written by Josh Homme and taken from Queens of the Stone Age’s 2002 album Songs for the Deaf). The other, extended improvisation is more exploratory and interactive, and one of the album’s highlights.

Western Wren (A Bird Call) is attributed to all three musicians. It features a unison line for Zenon and Loueke (as Ballard patters away with brushes) but it sounds largely improvised, and the instruments’ tone and the shape of the song bring Ornette and Metheny to mind.

Béla Bartók’s Dal (A Rhythm Song) was composed in 1931 as one of 44 duets for two violins. Its spacious melody unwinds into a slow, meditative blues with a lovely, simple resolution. The Man I Love is a quiet, tender ballad, yet its constantly shifting rhythm gives it a strange edginess.

The Antillean islands come to the fore on El Reparador De Sueños, written by Cuban folk singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez and arranged by Zenon. It’s both a calypso and a march. And yes, it has an infectious lilt.

Ballard has come up with an intriguing recording for saxophone, guitar and drums that is as far away from “chamber jazz” as it gets. The idiosyncratic selections and arrangements are full of surprises. A succession of solos is carefully avoided, and you never wonder where the bass player has gone.

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