It’s strange to think that this is only Jeff Ballard’s second album release as band leader. For well over a decade the US drummer has been one third of Brad Mehldau’s trio, and he has worked with numerous jazz luminaries such as Pat Metheny and Chick Corea. His first album, “Time’s Tales”, released five years ago, received excellent reviews worldwide and for many was one of the highlights of that year.
Ballard is one of those drummers that makes you sit up and listen. Whether he’s playing straight-ahead jazz or experimental soundscapes, he brings an energy to the proceedings that can excite through vivacious fervour, or hit you emotionally through subtlety and introspection. And so it was with much anticipation that I hit “play” on this one.
Having listened to “Fairgrounds” several times over for a few weeks now, my considered reaction is the same as my initial reaction… it’s a bit of an odd one. In a good way mostly, but also somewhat disappointingly in other ways. The band line-up is an enticingly intriguing one, with Lionel Loueke on guitar and vocals, Kevin Hays on keyboards, piano and vocals, Reid Anderson on electronics and Pete Rende on piano and Rhodes. There are guest appearances from saxophonists Chris Cheek and Mark Turner.
For me, there are individual moments of brilliance, but as a coherent whole, it is left lacking somewhat. Ballard’s desire for all the players to feel “an absolute freedom to play (or not) whatever they want at any given time” is a brave one. And there are times where this philosophy works beautifully. It’s the pay-off you get for this way of making music I suppose, you have to take the rough results with the smooth ones. The experimental approach can be richly rewarding, but also disappointing at times. I’ll take the excellent “Twelve8”, “Grounds Entrance”, “Cherokee Rose”, “Grungy Brew” and “Yeah Pete”, but I’ll leave the mediocre rest.
Summarising, I have really enjoyed listening to “Fairgrounds”. There are on some levels quite brilliant musicianship, perhaps as one might expect from the musicians involved, yet on other levels too many questions and contradictions, musically and otherwise. The Edition press release states that this album “sees the US drummer set on a new trajectory of increased recorded output, focus as a bandleader with a new home at British label, Edition Records.” And I certainly hope that’s the case as I relish the prospect of new music from Ballard and Edition in the near future. However, why is it that “Fairgrounds” is only being released now in 2019, when it was actually recorded in March 2015, nearly four years ago? Hardly “new” really. Surely Ballard himself has moved on musically since then, so what and when will we be hearing soon? Questions and contradictions… sounds like a good album title to me.