Jon Ballantyne is always on his toes. Whether he’s being challenged by the jazz legends he grew up listening to, his old peers at school, or contemporary artists and colleagues, there’s always a better musician out there to inspire him. And that’s just how he likes it. “It’s a life long thing.”
“I wouldn’t want to feel too comfortable,” said Ballantyne, 51, on the phone from his getaway home in Pennsylvania. “[I’m] so aware of so many fine musicians … it’s never-ending.”
This awareness of other musicians around him started setting in at university. Born in Saskatoon, he later won a scholarship to North Texas State and found himself surrounded by heavy-hitting jazzers, like Ron Carter, Nat Adderly, and Joe Henderson.
This is where we can trace back Ballantyne’s advice to young musicians honing their craft: having a chance to play with musicians who are more experienced than you is important, but listening to records and seeking inspiration from the jazz canon will always be infinitely useful. When in doubt, keep listening — and never stop playing. He’s a firm believer in the power of one’s “formative years” — but where those years end is up for debate.
“If it’s a matter of flow not being there, I discovered that I had to keep playing and eventually it just happens. It might take an hour, it might take an hour and a half. And then suddenly… there it is. When it’s flowing it doesn’t feel like work.”
At home Ballantyne grew up listening to Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Oscar Peterson, and Duke Ellington. With his parents records on the turntable, his house was always swinging, and it shows in his playing. His music doesn’t hide its old school roots, but they twist and turn with a contemporary, abstract flair.
His official bio labels him as “an artist who deftly combines the unknown with the known.” It’s this mix of the old and the new, the established and the unexpected, that adds a prickle of suspense to his solo performances. Jazz fans may recognize a standard tune, but under Ballantyne’s fingers, there’s no telling what path the music may veer down.
For example, Ballantyne does modern justice to the progressive, eccentric chord choices in Monk’s “Bemsha Swing,” by building on the harmonic richness of the tune and adding his own melodic ideas. Have a listen below.
His voice on the piano has developed over a lifetime of playing. When he was younger, Ballantyne capitalized on his carefree time, fewer “adult” responsibilities, and youthful energy. His style and technique have evolved as he matured, but the foundation laid in his youth was invaluable. And throughout it all, he keeps listening, keeps learning. That’s what keeps him on his toes, improving, and expand on his foundation.