JEFF BALLARD TRIO AND ALFREDO RODRIGUEZ MAKE UNIQUE WORLDBEAT JAZZ

Jeff Ballard Trio“Time’s Tales” (Okeh Records) by the Jeff Ballard Trio is the drummer/composer’s first session as a leader after playing with Ray Charles, Danilo Perez, Chick Corea and Joshua Redman. The ever-surprising Ballard, 50, is also currently in the Brad Mehldau Trio and Fly with Larry Grenadier and Mark Turner.

This eclectic Californian has recruited two other masters from two other parts of the world to make this debut a truly international mesmerizing worldbeat stunner:  the brilliant West African guitarist Lionel Loueke and the genius alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon from Puerto Rico, both leaders in their own right. Good thing, too, because Ballard’s complex poly-rhythmic approach isn’t the easiest thing on the planet to jive with!

The no-piano and no-bass sax/guitar/drums format proves quite the unique listening experience. The material ranges from around the world. “Dal (A Rhythm Song)” by Bela Bartok [1881-1945] is taken from the Hungarian classical composer’s “44 Duos For Two Violins.” “Hangin’ Tree” is a Queens Of The Stone Age song wherein Loueke gets to channel his inner Hendrix. George Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” is played straight–absolutely beautiful with a lyrical and tender sax spot that is truly breathtaking.  “Western Wren” is an improvisation complete with National Geographic-recorded birdcalls. The piece is never played the same way twice so this recorded version is one-of-a-kind.

Alfredo RodriguezJust as esoteric and globe-tripping is the worldbeat instant classic called
“The Invasion Parade” (Mack Avenue) by the incredible Cuban pianist/composer Alfredo Rodriguez. He’s only been in the States since 2009, coming from Havana where he “breathed Cuban music.” His “Sounds of Space” debut was promising but “The Invasion Parade” is a total flowering of his potential, a love letter to Cuba, and a progressive passionate profound statement of many colors.

“I searched different styles, different rhythms of Cuban music,” says the 28-year old. “I explored Conga Santiaguera [a rhythm from Santiago, in Eastern Cuba]; Afro-Cuban music and also musica guajira [country music]. I’m exploring the roots and searching for my own contribution to Cuban music.”

This is a kid who at 15, after studying classical music his entire life, heard “The Koln Concert” by Keith Jarrett and it changed his course forever. Enter Quincy Jones who heard him play at a private party at the home of the founder and director of the Montreux Jazz Festival,Claude Nobs [1936-2013]. Q took him under his wing and has been co-producing him. He may have had a little something to do with the allstar accompaniment that surrounds Rodriquez:  bassist Esperanza Spalding, percussionist Pedrito Martinez and dummer Henry Cole.

The title of “The Invasion Parade” has to do with an annual carnival tradition in Cuba commemorating the invasion of the Liberation Army that marked the end of Cuba’s war of independence. Rodriguez is quick to add, though, that he used the term to refer to the invasion of the streets by people who come to celebrate and dance.

Although his originals shine, his covers soar into the unknown. Take the old chestnut “Guantanamera,” for instance. You won’t recognize it. In fact, its author, Joseito Fernandez, is turning over in his grave. Deeply dissonant, spooky even, this version is inspired more by the avant-garde of classical composers like Stravinsky and Messiaen (who Rodriquez studied early on) than by Pete Seeger. “Snails In The Creek” is a song for a Santeria deity as is “A Santa Barbara,” an old guajiro classic. “El Guije” is for a goblin in Cuban fables and was influenced by Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal, who Rodriguez says is one of his favorites. Many of these tracks have vocals that add a mysterious, almost spiritual flavor to the proceedings.

Taken together, these two CDs lay out a bold new world and a bold new direction for forward-thinking progressive jazz fans. They are cause for celebration at a time when jazz–as a genre–relies too much upon its own historic past and not enough on bright new stars in its constellation.

About Mike Greenblatt

A longtime music journalist, Mike Greenblatt is a contributing editor with Goldmine magazine.

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