Most years I take some time in the spring semester at Wesleyan and work with my ensemble students on how to learn/inhabit a ballad deeply enough that it can be interpreted rubato. Rubato, for the non-musicians, is “free time,” which in practice could mean anything from the complete absence of a steady pulse to the permission to diverge from or alter a tune’s default tempo. This is a challenging, subtle practice when one is playing alone (and indeed, compiling this list, I realized that I’ll need to make a whole ‘nother list of my favorite solo-instrument examples of this) but exponentially more challenging when aiming to do so in a spontaneous yet coordinated manner with other people, depending largely on one’s ears (since in these settings there is very seldom a formal conductor) and depth of shared relationship with the tune in question.

There are different ways of doing this, ranging from traditional (e.g. Ella Fitzgerald taking her time while singing a tender ballad while a pianist or guitarist follows her lead) to more modern (although, as discussed below, some of these comparatively modern approaches are now 50+ years old and have become traditions unto themselves). Likewise this is often a technique used for an intro or ending (who doesn’t love a rubato intro by Kenny Barron or Bill Evans before the band comes in?), but here I’m focusing on performances that stay in that rubato wheelhouse.  

As I was going through my annual pondering of which tracks to share with students for reference, I realized that it was coalescing into a list, though one for which the criteria are a little hazy. Absent a tempo, how does one determine whether something is a ballad? (I omitted, for example, “Members Don’t Get Weary” by Max Roach even though it’s not any more raucous than entry #4 below, but the latter is a tune broadly identified as a ballad) And if a tune has rubato portions but coalesces into something with a tempo, is it disqualified? (I landed unscientifically on “if it’s mostly out of time”).

Without further ado, here are some of my favorite performances using this technique.  

1 ) Monk’s Mood” by Thelonious Monk from Thelonious Himself (1957)

Monk’s solo piano rubato ballads are superlative, and this one begins that way, before gradually expanding into a trio with bassist Wilbur Ware and some guy named Coltrane on saxophone. In all seriousness, this above all others is my own template for the tender side of rubato group balladry.

2 ) “Solstice” by Keith Jarrett from Belonging (1974)

Jarrett’s American and European quartets from the 1970s both made important and beautiful use of the rubato approach, and this is a gorgeous example of the latter from my favorite Keith record of the 1970s.

3 ) “Melancholia” by Duke Ellington from Piano Reflections (1953)

Foreshadowing Monk’s work in this vein, this duo performance with bassist Wendell Marshall is patient, colorful, and as emotionally resonant as it is sonically resonant.

4 ) “Naima” by John Coltrane from Live at the Village Vanguard Again! (1966)

I still remember hearing this for the first time in 1993 when I was assigned by Ralph Bowen to analyze it in contrast to the 1959 original. This was my first exposure to Coltrane’s last quintet (with Jimmy Garrison, Alice Coltrane, Rashied Ali, and Pharoah Sanders) and honestly, I was rather taken aback at first, especially once Pharoah entered for the sandpaper-toned solo that occupies the middle portion of this epic performance. Suffice it to say that once I acclimated, my response turned around 180 degrees.  

5 ) “Love In Action” by Jimmy Greene from Mission Statement (2008)

In the last few decades there have been many lovely recorded examples of the group “spiritual ballad” in the general vein of Coltrane and Jarrett (not to suggest that they copy either of these, except perhaps in instances that are explicitly designed as such, as with Branford Marsalis’s “Lykief”). My personal favorite is this earnest and beautiful plea for elevated humanity by Jimmy Greene, also featuring lyrical solos by Reuben Rogers on bass and Xavier Davis on piano.

6 ) “Two Women from Padua” by Geri Allen, Charlie Haden, and Paul Motian, from Live at the Village Vanguard: Unissued Tracks (recorded 1990, issued 2022)

I’ve always loved Geri Allen’s use of rubato (spoiler alert, she’ll likely be on the other list too) and Charlie Haden and Paul Motian are among the all-time masters of that technique, so it’s not surprising that they glide through collective rubato together with such ease and synergy.  

7 ) After the Rain” by John McLaughlin from After the Rain (1994)

Okay, I’m obliquely getting Coltrane in here a third time. I agonized over whether to include one of his gentler examples of rubato spiritual ballads versus item 4 on the list, and decided on this loophole of my favorite of those tunes as recorded by the great guitarist John McLaughlin, featuring Elvin Jones on drums doing what he does so well in this setting. The seed of performing this tune with organ (as I did with Trio 149 and included on my Love Right album) was planted by hearing Joey DeFrancesco on this track.

8 ) “Zen” by Hal Galper from Furious Rubato (2006)

In this century, Hal Galper’s trio with Jeff Johnson and John Bishop has essentially rewritten the book on group rubato playing. It’s particularly striking to hear them do so on bebop tunes and other material that might have previously seemed antithetical to that approach, but their way with ballads is no less masterful, as evidenced here.

9 ) “Come Sunday” by Milt Jackson from The Big 3 (1975)

Perhaps the most “traditional” performance on this list, Ray Brown sits this one out as Bags and guitarist Joe Pass gently duet on one of Ellington’s most gorgeous compositions.

10 ) “Man of Words” by Booker Little from Out Front (1961)

One of the many tragedy’s of trumpeter/composer/visionary Booker Little’s premature demise is that he was on his way to really developing the art of group rubato in a special way. We at least have the recordings he did make (particularly the Out Front and Victory and Sorrow records), and this particularly subtle performance is a standout.


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