It’s a testament to Jeff Ballard’s skill as a leader—and this, at age 50, is his first official outing in that capacity—that on Time’s Tales the drummer brings out some of the most inspired playing to date from his companions, Beninese guitarist Lionel Loueke and Puerto Rican alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón. Ballard understands that he must serve as anchor within this bass-less setup, but he’s not about to allow himself or his co-conspirators to be tethered by configuration. Got expectations? Forget ’em. Time’s Tales’ repertoire and arrangements are gloriously all over the map: original compositions and unhinged explorations, a Gershwin standard and a piece by Bartók, Latin and NOLA rhythms and, most astounding, “Hangin’ Tree,” a raging Queens of the Stone Age cover on which Loueke unleashes some serious, never-before-heard-from-him demons.
Ballard is comfortable within the trio format; his work with both FLY and Brad Mehldau’s trio is always exceptional. Here he’s enjoying putting to use that gift that so many drummers crave but don’t achieve—he’s exceedingly shambolic on the surface yet always in the pocket below. Ballard encourages that same free-floating inquiry in Loueke and Zenón (not that they need to be encouraged), knowing that however far afield they might stray, they will never lose their footing.
So there’s an appropriate flightiness to “Western Wren (A Bird Call),” credited to the three, all avian chitter-chatter, and great freedom in the open improvs “Free 1” (47 seconds) and the full-length “Free 3” (there is no “Free 2”). “Beat Street,” Ballard’s lone solo composition, comes closest to a drum showcase with its Congo Square tenacity, but he’s equally content to supply gossamer toms on Loueke’s “Mivakpola.” For all of the chops at work, Time’s Tales is mostly just a whole lot of fun. Sometimes that’s quite enough.