This feature appeared in Amplifier Magazine, February 2004
"I could smell Elvin Jones in the curtains," chuckles drummer Jeff Ballard after a sold-out three-night stand at the legendary Village Vanguard in lower Manhattan. Ballard, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, and bassist Larry Grenadier comprise Fly, the hottest new entity on the post-bop modern-creative jazz scene. Their self-titled debut on the resuscitated Savoy Jazz imprint runs the voodoo down from free style improvisations to structured compositions with melody and purpose.
Ballard and Grenadier first came together as teenagers, cutting their teeth on bandstands throughout Northern California, then heading to the East Coast where they met Turner. Years later the threesome became part of a Chick Corea recording project aptly dubbed "Origination," an open forum which allowed individual band members to contribute original material. Thus Fly was born. "Chick gave me money to make a record" recalls Ballard fondly. "Mark and I didn’t want to be the leaders. And Larry is the consummate sideman. Our music does not lend itself to a 'leader.' A leader hires you for yourself, and you play yourself, but you're still playing his thing. This is 'our' thing."
And this is not your father's jazz trio either. In Fly's world, the usual modus operandi of endless theme and variation or round-robin riffing have given way to an intimate three-way dialogue. The spark between the musicians is not only borne of friendship, but a shared goal. The result is an expansive, illuminating palate of harmonies, tones, and expressive counterpoint emanating from just three players sans the traditional rhythm section with piano and/or guitar comprising the creative canvass.
"Collaboration is the killing-est thing jazz has to offer," emphasizes Ballard. "Larry is a modern cat, who can cover a lot of ground. He's an outliner, a real meat-and-potatoes guy. We're not just laying a carpet for Mark to solo over." Turner, who has recorded extensively under his own name and alongside fellow tenor-sax star Joshua Redman and bassist John Pattitucci, among others, is quick to note that the recording dates for the disc, which only took two days, "were the smoothest sessions I've ever done. We were chilled out and there was no high-strung musical neurosis going on!"
Self produced and recorded live in the studio with few overdubs Fly not only breaks new ground but also pays homage to musical predecessors outside the jazz realm. "JJ," a Grenadier composition, is a funky paean to the legendary soul / R & B electric bassist Jerry Jemmott which features dexterous grooves most upright bassists would find impossible to navigate. Ballard brought in a BBC live recording of the Jimi Hendrix Experience Axis Bold As Love gem "Spanish Castle Magic" which the band tackles with poise. "It's a totally dangerous song to cover," says Ballard, who is still somewhat surprised that Fly was able to pull it off. "Sometimes it's kind of weak, sometimes it's super great. You need to really throw it all down on that tune, because if you don't it becomes a poor representation, and then it's downright embarrassing!" Motifs that would not be out of place on a Steely Dan tune emerge from Turner's "Stark," a fusion of three separate movements with contrasting arrangements and time signatures. The band's most personal offering is "Fly Mr. Freak-jar" written the studio by all three members and the final track recorded. Nailed in one take, the tune embodies what Ballard refers to as "filling the spaces, and not filling the spaces. It's about what's inferred, what's in the air. I find more truth in taking risks than in playing it safe," a credo which carries over to Fly's concert performances. "The other night at the Vanguard, Mark said to Larry and I that 'last night was nice, but we weren't as close to the edge of the cliff as we could be. Let's push it out and look over."
On the current state of jazz in the marketplace, Ballard ruminates over where the music is headed. "In jazz, and in most music, I think there is a fear of not succeeding, of not being a big seller. If you look back as recently as the 1970s, that was not the case. Weather Report came together because Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul wanted to continue what Miles (Davis) started, not because they expected it to be as popular was it was. The same goes for Chick Corea in Return to Forever and John McLaughlin in the Mahavishnu Orchestra." Fly intends to continue their flight throughout 2004 and beyond, recording and converting the masses at large jazz festivals and small clubs in the United States, Mexico, and Europe.
With a rapidly expanding fan base and critical acclaim, Ballard can afford a bit of self-effacing humor "I never do interviews and today I have three! Times must be changing, things must rough if I'm becoming a celebrity."