Jeff Ballard opens SFJAZZ Center summer festival

Bay Area Native returns with an exciting trio

The Jeff Ballard Power trio opens new worlds
SFJAZZ Joe Henderson LAB
By Ken Vermes

June 15, 2014
Who would have known that the young man banging on drums down stairs in my old Noe Valley neighborhood would have advanced to be one of the great percussionists in jazz? And who would have thought that after years on the road with Brad Mehldau, he would be opening the new season at SFJAZZ in the Joe Henderson Lab room with his new band on a Wednesday, June 11 with two searing sets of trio jazz?
But I guess I should not have been surprised that as we packed into the modest space in the SFJAZZ building we were about to see the emergence of an astounding group. For Jeff, would not be satisfied with anything else. That said, this listener, who has seen hundreds of performances since the days of cruising New York and watching Tony Williams bring down the house in the Village, there is always the time and space for something so new.
Jeff Ballard, has not only created a sensational band to watch and hear, he has redefined the very sound of jazz through the filter of his deep search for a brand new energy for the music. And where else would he go but to another sensational player, Lionel Loueke from Benin. As Anjelique Kidjo reminds us, this small country has generated profound and sensational musical artists from the red earth of the land and a spiritual and cultural experience that is as deep as it is broad. Loeke plays with a Afro-centric style as individualized as his singing. And without a bass player, he is playing a pulsing, driving and very subtle background to the action.
On top of this rhythm foundation, Miguel Zenon is playing alto sax, and is in a prime place to blossom into the top tier of sax players through a whole new dimension of solid, funky, and precisely slithering solos in a style that can only be defined as Ornette meets Maceo Parker, meets Cannonball and then some.
But the leader at this show was the drummer. And here, Jeff not only takes control, but leads the group into a forest of percussion worlds, tempos, dances, and runs. The influences are there (Elvin Jones would be rolling in the aisles). But Jeff’s originality is part of the flavor of the group itself, which is strongly linked to the tunes (mostly originals by the band members) and the solos, and by a drive to complete a signal tapestry based on dance, bebop, soul music, and world sounds. And that layering is what makes the band so very exciting to experience. Because in this case, the music is not only the sound of surprise, but the sound of a visual and melodic excitement springing from some very new ears. These players are exploring a universe of sounds and coming back to the mother ship. And by bringing these cultural worlds together, each breath of the music has a pulse connecting the whole planets liveliness. The beat, the pulse is global, exploratory and full of revelation. Not since Ornette Coleman created his trio and recorded in Scandinavia (Golden Circle), have three players put on such a dynamic and alluring concept performance. Ornette was breaking the rules, and offering a creative mix that was surprisingly simple and refreshing at the time. Ballard, is taking this to the next degree by serving up a world feast and funkified taste of fifty years of inclusion. This is it, jazz played across all borders and across all barriers. There is now a world of sound that we can experience in new ways and with new ears. As jazz fans, each of us has to try to get a younger generation to hear this and see the future of the music. They will be moved. And they very well may get this band for its originality and world fusion conception.
And for those of us who were there, seeing this group in such an intimate space, watching the beautiful dance of the music, and experiencing the players very own excitement, was a thrill like no other. This band needs to be felt and seen live. It will change you.

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