There’s a great story about Bob Dylan meeting the mysterious jazz icon Thelonious Monk in Greenwich Village during the early 1960s. According to legend, the aspiring young troubadour introduced himself with the declaration, “I’m Bob Dylan. I play folk music.”
“We all play folk music,” the unimpressed Monk reportedly retorted.
Indeed, if you peel back the surface of even the grandest musical form, you will find the exposed root of folk tradition embedded in the foundation. Dylan’s blues-inflected balladry certainly shares a common root with Monk’s abstract jazz language, a root that stretches back to the folk traditions of West Africa, imported by force to the Americas during the vile era of the slave trade.
Indianapolis guitarist Charlie Ballantine seems to share Monk’s expansive perspective on the concept of folk music. Ballantine’s latest release is titled Life Is Brief, and it features 12 jazz interpretations of classic Bob Dylan songs.
Dylan’s compositions have never been widely embraced by jazz instrumentalists, as the rudimentary harmonic structure of his music doesn’t easily lend itself to rich improvisatory exploration. Ballantine compensates for this by constructing compelling sonic atmospheres, focusing on the texture and tone of his guitar over traditional jazz solo runs.
While on paper, a seven-minute instrumental take on Dylan’s lyric-heavy protest dirge “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” doesn’t sound immediately appealing, Ballantine pulls it off with a cool ease. Building off the thin skeleton of Dylan’s melody, Ballantine slowly weaves a series of haunting guitar lines into a crescendo of dazzling sound.
Ballantine has drawn nearly half of the LP’s tracks from Dylan’s protest-music period, a surprisingly brief phase of the songwriter’s career. While Dylan’s artistic identity is inextricably linked to his work penning protest anthems, he largely abandoned topical songwriting in 1964.
Ballantine’s emphasis on Dylan’s protest songs was intentional and not a purely musical decision. During a recent conversation, Ballantine shared that he sees a lot of parallels today with the racial injustices Dylan sang of during the early 1960s on songs such as “The Death of Emmett Till.”
“It’s kind of shocking how little has changed since then and how we’re still having the same conversations today,” Ballantine says. Ballantine’s version of “The Death of Emmett Till” is a high point of the album. The guitarist captures the outrage expressed in Dylan’s lyrics as his tone progresses from a clean melodic lead on the intro to discordant eruptions of distortion at the coda.
Perhaps the strongest moment on Life Is Brief is Ballantine’s excellent take on “Masters of War,” Dylan’s damning 1963 indictment of the military industrial complex. Ballantine’s version features a stunning tenor sax solo from Indianapolis jazz great Rob Dixon.
“I knew as soon as I decided to record this song that I wanted Rob to play on it,” Ballantine tells me. Ballantine gave Dixon very little instruction prior to recording, asking only for Dixon to play what he thought war would sound like through a saxophone. Ballantine was amazed with Dixon’s contribution. “It was honestly the coolest experience I’ve ever had in a studio.”
In addition to Dixon, singer-songwriter Brandon Whyde provides another notable guest appearance on Life is Brief. Whyde contributes vocals to two of the LP’s tracks, “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” and “I Shall Be Released”, a duet performance with Mina Keohane.
Dylan spent a good part of the late '60s and early ’70s struggling to shed his identity as a topical protest writer, recording a bewildering series of records that alienated much of his fan base [see 1969’s Nashville Skyline and 1970’s Self Portrait for evidence]. But Dylan did make a rare return to topical protest themes on his 1976 LP Desire, addressing the plight of boxer Rubin Carter on the song “Hurricane”.
Ballantine draws one track from Dylan’s Desire, the uncharacteristically Eastern-flavored “One More Cup of Coffee”. It’s the latest vintage Dylan tune featured on Life is Brief and features some of Ballantine’s best soloing on the disc. On this track, and throughout the LP, Jesse Whitman’s upright bass is a major component of the record’s sound. Whitman creates a perfect rhythmic pocket for Ballantine’s lead, occasionally stepping forward to conjure up his won melodic solos.
A familiarity with the themes and lyrics of Dylan’s originals will enhance your appreciation of Ballantine’s interpretations, but it’s in no way essential for enjoying the excellent music on this disc.
Most of the tracks featured on Life Is Brief will be immediately familiar to even casual Dylan fans, with a few lesser-known gems thrown into the mix. Dylan obsessives such as me will immediately recognize the album’s title as the closing line from the chorus of “Tears of Rage.”
Dylan co-wrote “Tears of Rage” with The Band’s Richard Manuel, and the song first appeared on The Band’s classic 1968 debut Music from Big Pink. That album has a special significance for Ballantine. “Part of how I found out about Dylan was through The Band,” Ballantine tells me. “I had Music from Big Pink before I knew who Bob Dylan was.”
Life is Brief is Ballantine’s fourth full length release, and his strongest musical statement thus far. Ballantine will perform two shows at The Jazz Kitchen on April 14 to celebrate the album’s vinyl release. Head to CharlieBallantine.com for more information. I recently caught up with Ballantine to learn more about the making of Life is Brief.
NUVO: Why did you decide to record an album of Dylan songs?
Charlie Ballantine: I wish I had a really good response for that, but really I just love Bob Dylan. He was the first guy I remember trying to imitate, buying a pack of Lucky Strikes and trying smoke them while I played my acoustic guitar. I love his music as much as I love his personality.
NUVO: I’m curious what your process was like for the track selection? I love all these songs, but I wouldn't immediately think a song like "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” was ripe for interpretation as a jazz instrumental.
Ballantine: That was the hardest part because he has such a vast discography. Life is Brief is an ironic title in a way, because when you look at Dylan's discography its like, "How can someone do all that and remember all those words?" [laughs] The only regret I have in the track selection is that we couldn't pick fifty, or a hundred songs.
I wanted to include pieces that I loved like “The Death of Emmett Till" from his protest music. I love the songs and the voice behind them, and there are so many parallels to what's happening today. When you listen to the “The Death of Emmett Till" it's kind of shocking how little has changed since then, and how we're still having the same conversations today.
I also wanted to include the songs we all know and love. Everyone can relate to "The Times They Are A-Changin'". I wanted to include some of Dylan’s hits, so to speak.
NUVO: Considering Dylan’s prominence as a songwriter, there isn't an abundance of jazz versions of his music. I always assumed that's because his music isn't as harmonically rich as a Hoagy Carmichael or Cole Porter standard. Having just recorded an album featuring jazz arrangements of Dylan tunes, did you find that to be a challenge?
Ballantine: Yeah it was. There is definitely a harmonic difference between jazz and folk music. They’re almost on two different ends of the spectrum harmonically. You have jazz, which is the highest level of harmony, and folk music, which is typically three chord tunes. So we really worked hard in the arranging process to do our best to combine both of those worlds. But at the same time I just try to play without getting in the way of the song. That's always the most important part to me, we play it our own way, but the song has to be there.
NUVO: You told me when you picked up the guitar, Dylan was the first musician you tried to imitate. Since that time you’ve developed impressive skills as a jazz guitarist. How has your view of Dylan as a guitarist changed during that time?
Ballantine: I try not to create any type of hierarchy in my mind. It's almost like comparing the Beach Boys to Stravinsky. I hate to say that one is better than the other. With Dylan, I don't think he knew as much about the fretboard as Wes Montgomery. But at the same time he did some really amazing things and wrote some really good guitar parts. When you listen to “It's Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” or “Don't Think Twice It’s Alright” there's some really heavy stuff happening. I think there's a beauty to putting the right thing in the right place.