NUVO award winning jazz guitarist Charlie Ballantine sits earnestly at the all-organic, plant based Ezra’s Enlightened Café, tugging at his beard between sips of his fruit smoothie, and talks about his music, while one of the employees slyly puts on one of Ballantine’s records, setting a relaxing mood for everyone in the café.
Entering the Indy jazz scene shortly after graduating from the Jacobs School’s jazz program, Ballantine modestly credits his success to knowing local jazz giants such as The Tucker Brothers, a group fronted by guitarist Joel Tucker and bassist Nick Tucker.
To meet fellow local talent, he also frequented the Chatterbox Jazz Club often in the beginning of his career, a venue where he now plays every second Friday.
With his self-proclaimed “crappy” music charts he writes out for himself for his live performances, Ballantine admits that he and his band don’t practice a lot before they perform shows, nor do they write out set lists.
He believes largely in the improvisation element of jazz, and follows actress Tina Fey’s rule of improvisation: agree with everything, all the time. Using this rule, Ballantine finds it easy to follow other musicians effortlessly.
This is a rule that Ballantine followed closely while recording his new album Where Is My Mind, which dropped in July. The album is named after a cover his band does of the Pixies’ song of the same name. Along with following the “agree with everything” mantra, Ballantine also began yearning for what he calls “unorthodox” song techniques, crediting artists like Sun Kil Moon.
“I started to notice that I got locked into four bar phrases, or two bar phrases. If you turn on the radio, you’ll hear a similar format,” he said. “So writing things in three bar phrases or six bar phrases was something I challenged myself to do on this album.”
Ballantine’s approach to writing a new song varies depending on the circumstances. He credits the inspiration for his recent work on his new album to listening to bands like The War on Drugs, and other non-jazz influences. He says it’s helped him to break out of certain familiar patterns and open up different avenues in songwriting.
Where Is My Mind was recorded at Postal Recording, which is a studio Ballantine chose for the vibes, environment, and the engineer, Alex Kercheval.
“He was really fun to work with because he wasn’t afraid of trying some really unique and creative sounds that a lot of people in their projects might not have been crazy about,” Ballantine said.
Ballantine notes that Postal Recording is a very unique studio because they record all of the music to tape. He said because of this, all of the songs that come out of the studio have a nostalgic, analog sound to him.
“I said, ‘If we’re doing this to tape, at one point on this record we’ve got to flip the tape and play these progression backwards just cause we’ve all heard the Beatles and Hendrix and Beach Boys stuff where they do that,’” Ballantine said.
“So I was just kind of giddy knowing that we were going to get to do that because all of my studio heroes get to do that.”
The Charlie Ballantine Group’s live performances are a force to be reckoned with. Ballantine’s bluesy, occasionally heavy guitar riffs lay down a soulful bed for saxophonist Amanda Gardier to lead with sultry, heady melodies.
Gardier, who began playing around town in 2014 after moving to Indianapolis following her graduation from Indiana University, began playing early on with the Charlie Ballantine and the Clifford Ratliff Big Band, but she had played with Ballantine previously in Bloomington-based cover bands in the years prior.
She is now a steady member of the Charlie Ballantine Group, and a key member in the recording of Where Is My Mind.
“It was really fun hanging out with all of the musicians in the studio,” Gardier said. “I also really enjoyed how creative the recording engineers were.”
The Charlie Ballantine Group recently went on a regional tour to perform songs from Where Is My Mind and had a great audience response.
“We had a ton of fun performing in different venues throughout the Midwest,” Gardier said. “Charlie’s music represents a very unique combination of musical styles, and it often really hits a nostalgic and blissful chord with audiences.”
It’s that nostalgic chord that sparks the reaction that Gardier loves.
“Everything feels more spontaneous during live performances,” Gardier said. “It is also very fun to feed off of the energy and the mood of the audience while performing.”
Ballantine, on the other hand, says he equally enjoys performing and recording his music.
“There’s definitely a certain magic to get to play and see a reaction from people and be very much in the moment with the audience that’s watching you,” Ballantine said.
“But I also love the recording process because it’s where you’re even more exposed and more vulnerable because what you’re doing is just being laid down forever and there’s kind of a rush with that for me too.”
The Charlie Ballantine Group performs weekly at venues all around town, including The Chatterbox, The Jazz Kitchen, Bangkok Restaurant and Jazz Bar and Coal Yard Coffee.
They will also play two sets at the upcoming Indy Jazz Fest.