In conversation with fly: jeff ballard, larry grenadier, and mark turner
A cooperative group born in the early 2000s, Fly has developed an utterly original approach to the sax/bass/drums trio. They released their first album in 2004, the eponymously named Fly, for the Savoy Jazz label. The release of their second record, Sky & Country on the legendary German-based ECM label, has further raised their collective profile.
A current European tour brought saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Jeff Ballard to Paris for a few days at the end of May to play the Sunset, one of the premiere clubs of the French capital, and to teach a master class. Paris-based Thierry Quénum, a regular Jazz.com contributor, asked them to talk about their vision of music and the history of their group.
How and when did the three of you meet?
Mark: I met Larry in high school in California in 1984, and I met Jeff in New York in '91.
Larry: I met Jeff in the early eighties at a jazz camp in California. I was still in high school and he was already in college. We started playing together during the eighties. As for Mark, after our first meeting in California, we met again near Boston, where we were both studying in the early nineties. Then we moved to NYC, where Jeff had moved a year before. Jeff and I lived together downtown, while Mark was living in Brooklyn. We had a lot of sessions at our house, and once we invited Mark, which was the first time that we played trio together, around 1991.
Jeff: In fact, I was the one who put the band together officially for the first time: in 2000 Chick Corea presented his sidemen, with their own bands, on an album called Origination. So Fly first appeared on record as the Jeff Ballard Trio. We all felt great about this, so we kept on playing and made our record for Savoy in 2004 ...
Larry: … and we continued, even when the relationship with that company faded away. We had gigs in New York and other places in the States.
Did you decide right away to use a collective name?
Mark: Yes, pretty much.
Larry: It seemed like the music that we are making was not about one person being out front. It was not about a saxophone with bass and drums accompaniment, so it didn’t seem right to call it one person’s name. It was three equal parts.
Jeff: The fact that the three of us have been sidemen more often than leaders also pushes us to take greater care of the two others. Hence, this collective conception of the trio.
Were you conscious that you were different from most sax/bass/drums trios?
Mark: Maybe in the hindsight, but it certainly wasn’t a conceptual idea. There were things that we knew we anted to do—the length of the compositions being an obvious example, or the fact that the improvisation shouldn’t necessarily be on the entire form of the song—that may be markedly different from what other trios do, but it never was meant to be so. Of course, we thought about the form of the tunes, because that’s what came [from] checking-out the possibilities of this bare-bones band.
Larry: What happens with a band like ours is similar to what happens when you develop as an instrumentalist or a singer. You’re an amalgamation of everything that you’ve listened to and that turned you on. All this unconsciously finds its way into the music. But we never decided to sound like any particular band, or not to sound like any particular band.
There was one tune that you composed together on the first record, but none like that on Sky & Country. Was that deliberate?
Jeff: No, we just happened to be living closer to one another at the time, which made this type of things easier.
Larry: But even if they’re not composed collectively, these tunes all have our input. Lots of the tunes are not originally fully formed, and though one of us has composed them, we collectively decide how they’re going to evolve. The form is a huge part of this process and taking in everybody’s ideas and making them part of the tune can be considered as some kind of collective composing.
Are you conscious of an evolution between the first and second records?
Mark: I would say that the second is more pastoral. The improvisations are more woven to the sound itself than they were in the first. We’re writing that way and that’s part of our evolution. Just the same, we go towards longer forms.
Larry: We’re finding ways to create more musical interest, and one of them is to have different sequences to a tune so that a strong break between these sequences can bring a dramatic evolution to the next one. That goes for the improvisations too. The song becomes like a landscape that evolves over time, as opposed to giving the whole form at the beginning and repeating it at the end. It’s not your typical AABA jazz form, and we’re exploring the possibilities of what can happen with just these three instruments. Besides, the soprano that Mark uses on this new record brings a new element of sound.
Would the writing process that you’re talking about be possible with another type of trio?
Larry: Every band has its own plusses and minuses. The plus in this band is that by limiting the number of voices you’re increasing the possibilities for each instrument, but in each type of band you’re dealing with the possibilities for the sound to come out.
Jeff: Actually, we’re discovering that there’s more potential than we originally thought, and it’s very exciting. We even felt it these last few days, playing several nights at the Sunset in Paris, and I think the next bunch of compositions will reflect these evolutions. Being sidemen in other projects, we also bring back inspiration from outside this band, and the reverse happens, too.
Larry: This band is a laboratory in a way …
One last question about the repertoire: On the first record, in addition to the band's original compositions, you covered Jimi Hendrix and Reid Anderson tunes. Not on Sky & Country. Why was that?
Mark: We do play other people’s tunes live. For example, during the Paris concerts we played a Lucky Thompson composition. It’s fun to adapt other tunes to this band, it’s almost like rewriting them. But for this record we focused on our own material.
Does it have to do with the fact that it’s your first ECM record? Which brings me to ask you how you met Manfred Eicher.
Larry: I knew him from the records I’d done with Charles Lloyd. Besides, we all grew up on ECM records and they had a big impact on us. So when we started thinking of a label, ECM naturally came as a possibility, and when we brought the music to Manfred, he was immediately interested.
Jeff: It took a long time, though, even after he’d said yes, but that’s our pace anyway.
Larry: Some people are surprised that we are on ECM, but actually it seems to fit us pretty well. ECM has been labeled in a certain way, but if you look at their catalog—from the Art Ensemble of Chicago to Keith Jarrett through Arvo Pärt—it’s big and very diverse. We somehow bring something that was more present at their beginning than it is now, something that was part of their core stuff. It also fits, because of the space that comes through in our music and that can be played in the studio in a very cool way. Manfred is very aware of that, of the soundscape.
Was he present in the studio, and how influential was he?
Mark: He was there, but he was mostly influential at the mix. It was a collaboration, something very unique. He also brought a lot of interesting ideas for the sequencing of the tunes.
Let’s talk about live music. Do you have more gigs now that you are ECM artists?
Mark: We’re playing about two tours a year, plus one or two weeks in New York. We’ll probably do more now that we’re on a label again, since you know labels facilitate work. But we’ve been working all along.
Your personal schedules allow you to do so?
Jeff: We’re consciously making it so that it happens. Larry and I already asked Brad Mehldau if he could leave some space free for us to play with Fly, and he was very open to the idea. So there’ll definitely be more happening.
How about venues? What do you like best: clubs or bigger rooms?
Larry: Most people would think clubs are the best for us, but we also like bigger places. We’d play a different set than in a club, but it can be nice too. Something about a club that’s unique, though, is that you’re right next to the audience and you can physically feel the energy going back and forth with them. There’s nothing like that to a concert.
Jeff: The club also gives you the possibility of playing several nights, and it’s good for us and for the people who can come several times and get a picture of what’s going on. I’d like more of these long runs.
Mark: When you think of Monk, who played several months in the same club, six nights a week—this really does have an effect on the music.
I don’t know about the United States, but are you aware of the fact that in Europe, Fly has become a reference for many musicians, mostly younger ones?
Jeff: We’ve noticed something from the audience that comes to see us. It’s always been young. As far as musicians are concerned, there’s been a lot of talk about Mark’s influence on tenor players younger that him, but we haven’t heard about an influence from Fly as a band.
Mark: Definitely, there are young musicians in our audience, but I think there are too in Kurt Rosenwinkel’s audience, in Brad Mehldau’s audience, or in the audiences of other bands where I’m playing.
Larry: I’m not aware of that influence either, but it’s cool to hear about it.
Jeff: If these younger musicians you’re talking about are attracted by our way of playing, I’m glad to hear that because I love our type of interaction and I’d like to hear it more. Of course one of the reasons for this supposed influence is that there are more and more jazz students and we can only hope that our supposed influence will help them develop their curiosity towards what influenced us. It’s a long process to check out music that is not easily available in the time when you grow up. To us, Count Basie has always been one strong influence, for example.
Do you often teach master classes, like the one you just did at the Paris Bill Evans Piano Academy?
Jeff: Quite a bit, yes. That’s fun. And the students actually asked us some questions about band playing.
Larry: I’m still thinking about this idea of our influence on younger players. I think that one of the things that may appeal to them is that our band is musically very inclusive. Everyone wants to be inclusive, but they don’t know how. How do you make Duke Ellington and Steve Coleman come together, or Ray Brown and Jaco Pastorius? This happened rather naturally for us, and I think it can be appealing to younger players.
Mark: In fact, I’m not sure many bands that are concerned about changing directions inside a tune, or weaving composition and improvisation more together have as many older influences as we do. For example, on the last record we have tunes that have an older feeling, that go back to the forties, a bit like that Lucky Thompson tune that we played live.