Jeff Ballard – ‘Fairgrounds’ (Album Review)

It’s hard not to love Jeff Ballard’s solo work. He’s a percussionist who isn’t afraid to get weird. He’s probably best known for his branching out work with the Brad Mehldau Trio, but that’s an acoustic group. They’re a trio, one Ballard has been a part of for the last fourteen years. But the last time Ballard released an album as a leader was in 2014. Time’s Tales was a masterful trio album alongside saxophonist Miguel Zenon and guitarist Lionel Loueke. It had range, playfulness, and electric quirks and squeaks and all kind of delightness that just lingers with you, so to see Loueke collaborating alongside Ballard yet again makes his new album, Fairgrounds, out now on Edition Records, all the more exciting. Adding Kevin Hays & Pete Rende on keys and Reid Anderson on electronics, something one doesn’t get to hear all too often, just puts things over the top.

This album is a trip. It’s never one specific mood or direction of jazz. Songs could be slow and moody like “I Saw A Movie” or “Miro”, a groovy tune with some charming vocals from Kevin Hays on “Hit the Dirt”, a super out jam like “Grungy Brew”, or easing into the wind down of closer “Cherokee Rose”. There isn’t really a consistent mood on Fairgrounds, but this isn’t to say the album is inconsistent. These are songs recorded live while this group was on tour in Europe in 2015, so it would make sense that these songs feel like travels. They have made journeys, so why would your ears not?

For such a journey, there’s no better traveling partner than Lionel Loueke. There’s always a weighty buoyancy to his sound, always in perpetual motion and overjoyed to take you there. Kevin Hays and Pete Rende trading off on keys are providing much of the melody here, a little more structure but certainly with the appropriate level of organic weirdness. However, the most inspiring addition here is Reid Anderson on electronics, an element he has been involved in for many years, occasionally integrating them into The Bad Plus and in collaboration with other artists. Here, though, Anderson is a kind of glue for this sound. This is an electronic album, with keyboards and the Rhodes and electric guitar, adding some synths just made sense.

Calling this album Fairgrounds also just made sense. Fairgrounds are thrilling, or spooky, or amusing, joyful, or nostalgic, or greasy, or some many other things all wrapped up into one, broken into their parts and juxtaposed against one another. But ultimately, they’re fun. Jeff Ballard knows how to channel that fun, which makes it all the nicer to hear when he’s taking the lead, though with such a fun and balanced band as this, he’s more the orchestrator and arranger than the typical “leader”. That’s the thing about fairgrounds, too– the park is never running sequentially, attraction then ride then deep fried Snickers bar, but it’s running all at once. Jeff Ballard puts it all in motion and drums like he’ll never run out of ideas, especially not when he’s playing with these folks. Sounds like fun.

Fairgrounds, the new album from percussionist Jeff Ballard, is out now on Edition Records.

JEFF BALLARD drums, percussion
LIONEL LOUEKE guitar, vocals
KEVIN HAYS piano, keyboards, vocals
REID ANDERSON electronics
PETE RENDE piano, fender rhodes

MARK TURNER tenor saxophone (6, 8)
CHRIS CHEEK tenor saxophone (5, 11)