Ballard’s Fairgrounds Takes Shape at Village Vanguard
Midway through his quintet’s second set at New York’s Village Vanguard on April 13, drummer Jeff Ballard explained that the group was called Fairgrounds because he wanted to have “lots of different stuff going on.” And on that night he did. Though Ballard had used the name Fairgrounds before, this band—trumpeter Eddie Henderson, guitarist Jeff Parker, pianist Kevin Hays and bassist Larry Grenadier—was “brand new,” having debuted earlier in the week.
Henderson, a veteran who has cooked with everyone from Herbie Hancock to Gary Bartz, was connecting with younger players who had no doubt come up listening to him. Grenadier and Ballard, collaborators for more than 25 years and the beat poets behind Fly and the current edition of the Brad Mehldau Trio, had entered into yet another sonic setting. Parker, best known for his work with the instrumental Chicago band Tortoise, was furthering his reputation as an in-demand jazz player.
The evening’s first set skewed cheery, playful and relaxed. Parker’s “Days Fly By (With Ruby),” from the six-stringer’s 2003 album Like-Coping (Delmark), began and closed with a funky, head-nod-inducing bass vamp that wouldn’t seem out of place on an LP by A Tribe Called Quest. After a personal statement from Henderson, the composer’s improvisation danced over Hays’ subtly crunchy Fender Rhodes riffs.
“Sweet Stuff,” a smoky Horace Silver ballad, featured a thoughtful, controlled bass dispatch that started unaccompanied but later received snare-drum encouragement. And “A Sentimental Blues,” a song recorded by Ballard’s onetime boss Ray Charles, proved to be elegant, easygoing and swinging.
The set felt somewhat like a tribute to the late saxophonist Eddie Harris, with whom Ballard also worked and who wrote no less than three tunes explored during the night’s early performance. The uptempo soul-jazz piece “1974 Blues” boasted a popping, slinky solo from Hays; “Cryin’ Blues” was marked by a greasy, mysterious melody; and the set-opening “Goin’ Home” was a mischievous, lighthearted heap of hard-bop. With the shadows of Harris, Silver and Charles hanging in the room, the quintet couldn’t help but come across as soulful.
The late set started looser and more abstract. The first song was dusky and unsettled, boasting an ominous piano improvisation; the following tune began with delayed Rhodes ruminations. The vibe shifted halfway through the set with the emergence of a surprise guest, alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón, who focused the ensemble and took things to a more serious level. First up for the sextet was Charles Mingus’ “Nobody Knows (The Bradley I Know),” a fast-paced piece with a winding, snaking head. Zenón was burning and urgent, his solo not so much developing as constantly starting over. The following tune, a slightly sinister number in odd meter, pushed Zenón to heights that were sharp and frantic without falling apart.
Ballard’s “Beat Street” brought the evening to a close in a celebratory vein. Featuring a tricky head and a groove that fell somewhere in between a “St. Thomas”-like calypso and a New Orleans second line, the song came in waves: a restrained but spontaneous duet between Parker and Ballard; a free-spirited trio of Ballard, Grenadier and Hays on Rhodes; and a section that saw Zenón bouncing back and forth, issuing funky, singing figures.
For a band in just its first week of life, Fairgrounds explored an impressive variety of moods. Around the middle of each set, it dove into an avant-garde improvisation dubbed “Freegrounds.” The early set’s invocation, which doubled as an intro to “Cryin’ Blues,” incorporated searching, muted trumpet; sparse, legato guitar ideas; and the coy suggestion of a swing beat. The second set’s “Freegrounds” was stranger. Springy, kalimba-like sounds materialized, as did bowed bass and tense, uncertain acoustic piano harmonies. Henderson’s horn offered curious, wandering spurts; Ballard rattled his snare. On one of its first nights out, this version of Fairgrounds chose not to define itself. Fair enough.