JOE’S JAZZY JAUNTS: Jeff Ballard Trio & Jenny Scheinman
Supergroups are a long held tradition in rock, but they have their place in jazz as well. In some cases, we can look back at the members of an ensemble and say “That was a great lineup!” (The quintets of Miles Davis come to mind) In others, a cast of musicians will look around and see who they’ve always wanted to play with, then unite. Drummer Jeff Ballard’s trio is a recent example of this.
Ballard, at age 50, has been on the scene for some time and played with a variety of important figures. He is probably best known for his work in the trio of Brad Mehldau, a versatile pianist. That group has tackled everything from Charlie Parker to Soundgarden, with an equal amount of precision.
In 2006, Ballard formed his own trio with alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón and guitarist Lionel Loueke. Both of them come from outside the US— Zenón from Puerto Rico and Loueke from Benin—and bring in elements of their native traditions. All three musicians are adaptable to the point that they can draw from that reserve of knowledge for the purposes of conversation, rather than competitive showmanship. I heard Ballard speak a few months ago, and it was particularly clear that learning from foreign cultures excites him.
In January, the group put out its first album, titled Time’s Tales. It’s truly a melting pot, bouncing from style to style. The first track, “Virgin Forest”, features extended jams over a bed of skittering African rhythms. Ballard gets to show off the drum kit he put together for the occasion, mixing traditional percussion with more regional fare. You know that peppy sound you loved when Vampire Weekend mixed it with indie rock? Come here for the source.
Zenón showcases the Caribbean with an arrangement of “El Reparador de Sueños.” The song, by the Cuban composer Silvio Rodríguez, is a catchy little burst of sunshine. Loueke provides a soft repeating figure, while Zenón’s melodic line lounges over it. Ballard moves in the background, going from hi-hat taps to a martial snare beat.
The most intriguing inclusion on the album is a cover of Queens of the Stone Age’s “Hanging Tree,” which comes roaring in out of nowhere. Even with limited instrumentation, the group does a convincing hard rock impression. Loueke, usually reserved, lays on the distortion and Van Halen-esque shredding. Zenón’s sax measures up pretty evenly with Josh Homme’s vocal range, and he lets loose an impressive solo of his own.
For jaunt number two, I’m going to jump over to something completely different, and cheat a little. Violinist Jenny Scheinman has done some excellent work in a certain corner of the jazz world, focusing on original compositions and integrating a folk sound. She’s also worked with everyone from Wilco guitar wizard Nels Cline to Metallica.
Scheinman’s latest album is this year’s The Littlest Prisoner, which isn’t really jazzy but has the mitigating factor of being really good. She does more singing than on previous albums, displaying a restrained but focused vocal approach. She also has some excellent collaborators, including guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Brian Blade.
Lead single “Run Run Run” provides an even mix of elements. Blade provides a quick patter on the snare, serving as a perpetual motion engine. Frisell gives minimal but effective harmonic support, as is his wont. Scheinman’s lyrics carry knowing words of caution for a lover who’s scared to commit. She busts out an instrumental solo in the middle, and it’s callback to those days when players had to package their best ideas in 16 bars or less.
If the current trend of Americana in popular music is your thing, give this one a shot. You won’t get massive anthems, but you will expert playing and quiet intelligence. And an exploration of Scheinman’s career will lead you in all sorts of interesting directions.