Ballast, the coiled, stimulating album Los Angeles jazzman Gavin Templeton has been crafting for more than a year, was inspired by a range of thought and experience that continues to drive Templeton – and now, thanks to its febrile, probing nature, us.
This tough, hopeful recording is uncompromisingly modern, mostly hard, but at times unexpectedly, disarmingly sweet. And while most of its source material is uneasy, joy, even jauntiness, peek out.
“Ballast” refers to the weights seamen place in a ship’s hold to keep the keel even. It’s the cinder blocks people in colder climes put in their trunks to keep their cars from sliding on ice.
We all need ballast, particularly when life, like Templeton’s, is so turbulent.
The word popped into his head at the end of August, capping his work on the recording. It reflects the key influences on its development. All strike close to this gifted musician’s emotional home.
Templeton’s is a creatively rich world; it’s also, he suggests, a world under siege, albeit one in which there are glimmers of hope.
In “Contact,” the launch tune, Templeton’s dry alto saxophone is on the hunt for purpose, meaning, feeling. Bedded by bassist Richard Giddens, pianist Joshua White and drummer Gene Coye, he plays passionately and aspiringly, soaring higher as the piece progresses. More cry than song, it threatens to fall apart at the end, but the band ultimately staves off chaos.
Ballast aims to disturb. It aims to delight. It succeeds at both.
The back-story is critical.
The key influences on Ballast, Templeton’s fourth album as a leader, are government encroachment, children at play, and the on-again, off-again cancer of his wife, Karina. Recording it was his way to deal with all that. Music, says Templeton, takes over when words fail him.
The initial influence on this singular recording was Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee who in 2013 leaked classified information about “The Program,” a massive National Security Agency surveillance effort.
The Snowden reveal chilled Templeton. “There is no trace of humanity in this title, and no reminder of the millions of lives being collected and sorted,” he says. “It was a very chilling reminder of 1984. The frustration, anger and deep disappointment I felt turned into the song, ‘The Program.’”
Here is my take on a rough mix of “The Program”:
“Insistent, repetitious, martial White, Coye pushing, Templeton alternately hortatory and questing. Templeton called writing it a ‘turning point’ in creating the album. It sounds equally deliberate and hesitant, as Templeton tongues his phrases hard, then undercuts them legato. This is a conflicted tune… It’s a tough piece, always trying to attain a still center. White’s solo toward the middle is, like Templeton’s assays here, gnarly but at the same time elegant. The tune takes its time, like a good, not hostile, argument. White is outstanding here. Like ‘Strong Ties,’ it devolves into calm, then comes back strong and driving.”
Templeton originally wanted to elaborate on the Snowden material, focusing “on the different facets of intrusion of our privacy,” but his thoughts turned “superdark,” brightening only when he expanded his view.
Pondering Snowden led him to think more broadly, to contemplate the cyclical nature of history – he cites Lord Byron, who said “history, with all her volumes vast, hath but one page” – and the personal thrashings within that cycle. He also discovered such spins need not be only about the fight.
“I was teaching at a summer program while I was writing this music, and seeing all the kids running around laughing made me think about each family and the high hopes they hold for their children,” Templeton says. (‘If Only’ was written directly about this.)
My notes on a rough mix of “If Only”: “Expansive, warm, pictorial, with Templeton at his most generous. It’s a ballad, and it’s very pretty. Does it need a band? It could have been a solo. Querulous and kind, it’s also patient and tender, lacking the anger that fuels some of Templeton’s work here.”
Templeton has lived with the third influence for some time.
In Series, the album he released in 2013, was heavily based on Karina's medullary thyroid cancer, which returned in January. "Pretty much everything on that album was inspired by her condition, and after her surgery, everything was cool for a number of years so it felt like she was treated," Templeton says. "When it returned, we were tremendously upset, but there's really not much we can do about it. So in order to cope with this helplessness, I again began putting these feelings into music. It's inspiration I'd rather not experience."
Music saves Templeton’s life. May it save Karina’s.
“With our own lives, we all fit into society, trying to make our lives here,” says Karina, who is a classical singer. “But no matter what, everyone has their own individual story.” And challenge.
“We were both really frustrated with all the government intrusion, all of the news,” she adds, but “no matter what, when these types of things happen our own personal life will get in the way.”
Such situations make “everything seem for a moment unimportant,” he adds. “The people that you love and are closest to are the ones that matter most.”
Daniel Rosenboom, Templeton’s producer and founder/owner of Orenda Records, the Los Angeles label for which Templeton records, is more than close to both Templetons.
“It seems like it’s sort of rearing its head again,” Rosenboom says of Karina’s cancer. “The idea of waiting and seeing is almost more stressful than knowing there is something there,” he adds, so everyone is standing on “pins and needles.”
“Waiting Room,” a brief improvisation featuring shadowy Giddens and spectral White, directly addresses “a space of enforced reflection” Templeton has occupied in connection with his wife’s illness.
Music is a refuge, too.
On the professional level, Rosenboom says, “We discuss ideas, direction, sound, aesthetic, and message leading up to the recording, and then I try to listen critically in the booth to make sure Gavin and his band are achieving what they've set out to do. One thing both Gavin and I try to do is create seamless, complete sets. Templeton decided to use free improvisation as interludes to connect each composition. After these connectors were laid down, Rosenboom decided where to sequence them on the album.
Templeton provided both philosophical and technical comments on each track, bespeaking how deeply he invests in his music. As Rosenboom puts it, Templeton “is an absolute overthinker, but at the same he’s aware of that in himself and a lot of times he’ll stop himself from overexplaining something when maybe he should explain more.”
“When I do my own album, I compose all the music, because I feel that that’s what I feel, that’s the statement I want to make,” says Templeton. “I definitely do play straightahead jazz, but this is what I want to express. This is my statement.”
Each tune is a statement unto itself, and each makes a connection. Here’s what Templeton has to say about the technical side of “Strong Ties”:
“17 beat cycle. Harmonic foundation is grounded in the bass. The vertical harmony is very open, allowing for the soloist to have a great deal of harmonic and melodic liberty. Basically the soloist establishes the harmony and the bass line enables a point of reference.”
Here’s what he has to say about the meaning of the tune:
“‘Strong Ties’ was created based on a unifying idea that brings people together in protest. The underlying idea is represented in the bass line, which doesn’t diverge from its pattern throughout the tune - it is always the same no matter what direction the soloist chooses to take on top.
Here are my notes on “Strong Ties”:
“Darting and dramatic. The drumming and saxophone are of one mind, a determined one. Was there a specific protest that spurred this? Or the idea of protest? Again, it threatens chaos, as Templeton chases circular lines with angular ones. Coye’s surround-sound drums and White’s percussive, insistent piano add to the urgency of the piece. It seems to devolve toward the end, relaxing tempo until Coye and Giddens drive it back into tautness.”
The most complex track is “Fortresses,” the storm before the calm of “Canto CVIII,” the relatively tranquil closer.
Here are Templeton’s thematic notes on that tune: “’Fortresses’ represents revolution. I hear it as people gathering at the base of a fortress with the intention to take it over. A battle ensues. When the dust settles, a blanket of calm settles over. But whether the revolution is successful or not, it’s inevitable that the same type battle will be fought again.”
Here are my notes on “Fortresses”:
“Giddens sets the stage for what Templeton calls a song of revolution. It’s also a tune of futility. It’s aggressive and nervy, with Templeton sharpening his attack at each new phrase. It’s also the longest tune. It stops and starts, gathering force only to fall back and regroup, and it isn’t until close to four minutes in that the tune finds its footing. Templeton varies tone dramatically here, from the pinched to the guttural to flutter tonguing. Like ‘The Program,’ it’s challenging. And abstract, as Templeton ascends into harmonics and overblowing. Pretty? Not always. True? Always. And after it peaks in pique, it cools down, giving way to pantherlike Coye-Giddens timekeeping that allows Templeton to catch his breath for one final, more melodic foray. The moodiest and perhaps most complex piece on the album.”
Enough with the overthinking.
In Ballast, Gavin Templeton and his Los Angeles band use the vocabulary of modern jazz to craft a multifaceted statement about the real world. The real world is tougher than tough. Ballast helps in the battle.
—Carlo Wolff, 2015
Longtime critic Carlo Wolff contributes to Downbeat, writes book reviews, is a staff reporter for the Cleveland Jewish News, and the author of “Cleveland Rock & Roll Memories.” He lives in suburban Cleveland.