It is hard to think of pre-Brad Mehldau Jeff Ballard, isn’t it, because we all now have memories lazily thanks to Google perhaps that only go as far back as breakfast.
Think back instead beyond distractedness to when the now 54-year-old Californian joined Mehldau — the Nick Drake heavily influenced Day is Done was the first album — and how different the trio sounded compared to when Jorge Rossy, a fine drummer nonetheless, was at the kit.
Ballard is a master of the ride cymbal and brought his own ideas. He can find the “one” in the most complex Afro-Latin metrical line; his clave-like command and energy are some of his big plus points and part of his identity as a player. In a nutshell for a pianist he becomes an extension of the instrument the 89th, 90th, 91st notes because the piano is a circle of drums fundamentally.
It is exciting that the Ballard Fairgrounds band will be heard for the first time on record and released by a UK company Edition that has different ideas about sound (eg closer to ECM than Nonesuch) and image (a stronger emphasis on photography, less of a corporate mindset).
This clip, above, goes back to the Ballard Chick Corea days. I thought of him as a very different drummer then. It was a blur of sound more, off the scale of course in terms of technique and that still applies but by 2014 forging out on his own as a leader his style and repertoire were very different. With Chick and bass don Avishai Cohen that was when he made his name, coming in for Adam Cruz on Change released in 1999. Hear those records and you will still be amazed at how Chick and Jeff are in the moment with Avishai, the latter a huge inspiration for great Dane Jasper Høiby of Phronesis, Cohen now a major artist in his own right.