Getting set for drumming

Famed jazz drummer Jeff Ballard to share his secrets with Israeli students.

(photo credit: PASQUALE PARADISO)
Jeff Ballard has become something of a familiar face, and sound, here over the years. The 56 year old French-resident American jazz drummer has performed here on several occasions, proffering his expertise and accrued experience to audiences up and down the country. On his imminent next trip here he will pass on some of his hard-earned artistic acumen to students of the Ramat Hasharon-based Rimon School of Music, with some added entertainment for the public at large on the cards, too.
Ballard says he cannot wait to come over to contribute to the Oz Moses Jazz Workshop Week at the school. The program takes in a bunch of master classes, between January 27 and 29, Drum Day on January 28, and a concert at the Givatayim Theater on January 30 (9 p.m.). The drummer has been taking note of the standard of Israeli jazz output for some time now. “I’m blown away at how many incredibly great players are coming out of such a small population. It’s very impressive.”
A leading member of the New York jazz community once suggested that Israelis do so well in the art form because “they are so hungry, so driven.” Ballard has a slightly different take on the matter. “I’ve always thought it’s a very communal culture, a culture of community [in Israel]. You’re all together. The Israelis I know who moved to New York, they all hang together, all the time, so there’s a very communal spirit.” That, Ballard posits, fits the creative bill. “This music is definitely built out of a culture of that, of community. Its history is like that. I think that is how the music is put together too, how we play. It has this we’re in this together aspect, so you [Israelis] are in that together,” he adds with a chuckle.
Although Ballard does not benefit from front grid musical genes, he certainly got a healthy helping of the requisite sounds and vibes as a kid. “My dad played drums for fun when he was in the army,” he recalls. “He never really went out and played professionally. But he was a jazz fan, a real big fan, an incredible enthusiast.” That eventually made its mark on the budding jazz artist, in a very immediate sense. “When I finally got my drum set, at the age of 14 or 15, he would kind of play around on it. So I got to see that, so I got to see drums being played. I think that was cool and a big influence.” Ballard Sr. also helped to nurture his son’s burgeoning love with his vinyls, and the youngster quickly got into that, largely eschewing more contemporary “age-compatible” commercial sounds. “He had a Count Basie collection, and Oscar Peterson. I heard those things more than anything else, you know, more than [late 60s-70s rock bands] Kiss or Chicago. I think it was fortunate to have that at home. No one else in the family has a real musical inclination so it all kind of rubbed off on me, and I just kept on bouncing along with it. We moved around quite a bit, and I play in school bands. I just kept going.”
Ballard spent his formative years in Santa Cruz, California, but eventually made it over to New York, the epicenter of the jazz world. That was when he – to use an oft-cited epiphanic stage in any jazz musician’s development – “found his own voice.” “I think that came, kind of when I realized I was using a lot of woods, or I was using a lot of drums in my sound. I think it was in the early Nineties when I came to New York, I saw what my sound was compared to others.” It wasn’t so much a thunder clap moment. It sort of crept up on him as he explored different sonic and textural possibilities. “I never really envisaged it or made it. It just was, I like this sound or that sound. It was like, let me take this piece of wood from this box. That sounds good. Let me grab that.” He says he was generally drawn to “a darker, woody complex kind of sound, or a darker metal sound, or skins sounds or things like that.”
He soon began to attract the attention of some the more senior members of the jazz fraternity, and served a lengthy sideman berth with stellar pianist-keyboardist Chick Corea. One of his colleagues in that Origin group was renowned Israeli bass player Avishai Cohen, and the two have joined forces quite a few times over the years. In fact, Ballard played on Cohen’s first three releases, Adama, Devotion and Colors, and has recorded and performed on numerous occasions with pianist Brad Mehldau, while feted guitarist Pat Metheny has also been a beneficiary of Ballard’s singular style.
As a youth, Ballard was able to feed off the spirit and finesse of a member of an earlier jazz generation in the form of pianist and educator Smith Dobson. “He picked me up when I was about 16 years old. He moved to Santa Cruz when I was living there. He’d been around for a while. I guess he was about 40 when I met him.” That confluence had a significant and lasting effect on Ballard’s artistic trajectory and process of musical maturation. “He had a gig in a town next to ours and he played there two or three nights a week. On a Tuesday night I’d go with him. We’d drive over and listen to music. He had a duo and I sat in and played. It was just great. The bassist was this older dude who played great music, and he was into the blues, so he turned me on to [blues singer] Bobby Blue Bland. It was a very lucky encounter for me.”
While that was certainly a hands on step up for the teenager, a subsequent job with legendary pianist and showman Ray Charles, when Ballard was in his mid-20s, represented an incremental leap in the young drummer’s professional evolution. It also put him within touching distance of some of the giants of a bygone era. “I was very fortunate to have been able to play with this guy who was one of the originals. This music is passed on. It’s not just, here let me draw the map for you, if you put two and two together you’re going to get four and then you can swing. It’s not at all like that. The best way this information is transferred is through playing together with a person who knows what the hell’s going on, so much better than you. To get a chance to spend a lot of time with an original like that was invaluable.”
Over the years Ballard has spread his cultural hinterland to take in the rhythms and colors of Brazilian music, and music from West Africa and lent an ear to sounds from the Middle East. He also fed off the work of a wide range of fellow instrumentalists, from across the disciplinary horizon, including jazz legends Elvin Jones, Joe Jones and Max Roach, and explosive Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham. If pressed to settle on a particularly inspiring point in his incipient craft Ballard would cite Joe Morello, drummer with the quartet led by famed pianist Dave Brubeck. “I remember listening to [1961 Brubeck LP] Time Further Out, and there’s a tune on that called “Far More Drums,” it’s a drum solo. During that drum solo, towards the end of it, he gets to a thing when he hits a bass drum and he hits the crash cymbal. Then he chokes the crash cymbal as he’s moving up with the cymbal moving up to the bell. So I heard this crash, and then ching-ching-ching-ching,” he said, humming an ascending musical phrase. “I heard how he morphed the sound. That was a wow moment for me. He’d bent the sound. It had a shape to it.”
Perhaps some of the Rimon School drumming students will have a wow moment or two of their own when Ballard comes to town.
For tickets and more information: (03) 732-5340 and