Despite holding down some very high-profile gigs, Jeff Ballard is an exception to the rule that great drummers always call attention to themselves. A master of textural design who understands that silence is essential to generating momentum, the Santa Cruz-raised musician is utterly uninterested in showing off his technique, though he’s got chops to spare.
The main reason he’s flown under the radar — despite an ongoing decadelong run in the Brad Mehldau Trio, one of jazz’s most popular and visible ensembles — is that Ballard isn’t particularly interested in the spotlight. He certainly didn’t rush into recording his first album as a leader, “Time’s Tale,” a gorgeous trio session released in February on the revived OKeh label.
Featuring Puerto Rican alto sax star Miguel Zenón, a founding member of the SFJazz Collective, and Benin-born guitarist Lionel Loueke, Ballard’s trio makes its West Coast debut Monday at Kuumbwa, followed by two members-only shows Wednesday at the SFJazz Center’s intimate Joe Henderson Lab.
"I’ve never really cared about having my name out there," says Ballard, 50, from his home in Paris, where he’s lived for the past year. "I have good relationships with presenters from years of being around, so I don’t need fame to get a gig."
Although he had been disinclined to shoulder the responsibilities and hassles that come with bandleading, Ballard decided to take up the yoke because he was looking for opportunities to call the shots when it comes to repertoire. “Time’s Tale” reflects just a fraction of the trio’s material, and it ranges from Gershwin and Silvio Rodríguez to Bartók and Queens of the Stone Age, with originals and passages of free improvisation, too.
"The way we play is very democratic, but I get the chance to pick the repertoire and say, let’s play it this way," Ballard says. "I have this desire to play music very freely. I love to listen to music from all over, from rock ‘n’ roll to Romania."
Growing up in Scotts Valley, Ballard heard his father’s jazz and Brazilian music records and made enough progress on the trap set that he earned a spot in trumpeter Ray Brown’s Cabrillo College lab band while still attending Soquel High School. Taken under the wing of the beloved Santa Cruz pianist Smith Dobson (who passed away in 2001), he started performing regularly at Garden City on Tuesdays, while playing weddings and events with Smith and Gail Dobson on weekends.
He landed a gig with Ray Charles in 1988 and spent three years holding down the big band’s drum chair (“the best seat in the house,” Ballard says). When he jumped ship to test his mettle in New York, he landed in the midst of a scene that coalesced at a musician-friendly West Village club called Smalls, where he performed with a rotating cast of rising stars such as Zenón, guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner and Argentine pianist/composer Guillermo Klein.
Ballard first gained national attention in Chick Corea’s sextet Origin, as well as the trio with spectacular Israeli bassist Avishai Cohen (another Smalls regular) that Corea spun off of Origin. When Corea produced an album showcasing the formidable young musicians in his employ, he ended up midwifing the collective trio Fly with Ballard, Mark Turner and bassist Larry Grenadier. The group has recorded three acclaimed albums, most recently 2012’s “Year of the Snake” (ECM), and makes a rare Bay Area appearance at the Stanford Jazz Festival on Aug. 6.
Ballard knew Zenón well from their years playing in Klein’s band. He had less of a history with Loueke but had recently recorded with him on an album by bassist Massimo Biolcati. The chemistry was so potent that they were all eager for more.
Given Ballard’s commitment to the Mehldau Trio, Loueke’s gig with Herbie Hancock, and Zenón’s increasingly busy schedule as a bandleader, the Ballard Trio was never meant to be a primary project. And when Ballard moved to Spain in 2009, the start of his ongoing residence in Europe, the logistics got more complicated. Two years ago, they managed to arrange a European tour. Carving out time for the trio’s first West Coast tour was tricky, but Zenón emphasizes that his musical relationship with Ballard is rock solid.
"He’s one of my favorite drummers, hands down, in terms of how much I enjoy playing with him," Zenón says. "He approaches music in a fresh, almost childlike way. It’s going to be different every time. One time might work better than another, but approaching it that way, taking risks, is the reason why people love him. He always plays like he’s never played it before."
Contact Andrew Gilbert at firstname.lastname@example.org.