For 13 years Jeff Ballard has been a member of a preeminent jazz ensemble, the Brad Mehldau Trio. When you hear him live, with Mehldau or anyone else, you know you are in the presence of a special drummer, capable of generating fresh, intense forms of energy, even quietly. Ballard improves any band he plays in. Making records as a leader is a different skill set. Fairgrounds, Ballard’s second album under his own name and his debut on the U.K.’s Edition label, is odd and disappointing.
The odd part starts with the instrumentation. Ballard’s band has two keyboard players (Kevin Hays and Pete Rende), Lionel Loueke on guitar, and Reid Anderson, normally a bassist, on “electronics.” The 11 tracks were recorded live on a European tour in 2015, but you wouldn’t know it. Applause has been edited out. Some pieces, like “Grounds Entrance,” are close to ambient music, with shifting, stirring drum patterns and choirs of unspecified treble electronic phenomena. “YEAH PETE!” adds a throb to the ambience and a catchy but clichéd Loueke solo. Many tracks are like “The Man’s Gone”: generic trivial pop-jazz ditties, some with silly vocals. Two fine tenor saxophonists, Chris Cheek and Mark Turner, guest on two numbers each, but they cannot save this album. They are subservient to a mix dominated by electronic artifice. (Cheek does take a pretty solo on “Cherokee Rose.”) Ballard can’t save it either, although the principle that he improves bands still applies: The variety of his grooves is the best thing about Fairgrounds.
Press notes talk about Ballard’s “ceaseless desire…to move people emotionally, physically and intellectually.” Not this time. Few musicians of Ballard’s caliber have attached their names to tunes as pointless as “Marche Exotique,” and as devoid of substantial content as “Soft Rock.”