Time’s Tales brims with mischief. A trio of California drummer Jeff Ballard, Beninese guitarist Lionel Loueke and Puerto Rican alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon want to pry, cajole and sweet-swing your mind open. They use a strategic bevy of twerks, caresses, yanks and hugs that execute a kind of immaculately positioned rhythmic acupuncture.
Take a five-song segment that begins with an exquisite, creatively nuanced cover of the Gershwin standard, “The Man I Love,” that wouldn’t ruffle a feather in the lounge of your local Sheraton. That’s followed by a 47-second improvisation (“Free 1″) that applies a slight fusion-jazz gauze to Ballard’s percussive bottles and bells. Then a faithfully metallic take on “Hangin Tree,” by Queens of the Stone Age, with Loueke shredding, Zenon modulating furiously, and Ballard issuing exploding thuds like he’s bowling in a boxcar. Of course now it is time for Bartok, specifically “Dal (a rhythm song),” as fresh and dewy-pure as a chamber nursery rhyme. Rounding off the segment is “El Reparado De Suenos” (which translates as “The Repair of Sleep”), a prancing, increasingly joyous rendition of the Silvio Rodriguez tune culminating in some rambunctious syncopation.
There is also a pair of Loueke tunes, a jungle-inflected rendition of his well-known “Virgin Forest,” done here in 9/4 time, and the more obscure ballad, “Mivakpola,” with hints of The Beatles’ “Blackbird” and grounded by Ballard on hand drums.
Throughout the journey, the trio proves they are game for anything — there are no guest stars and few, if any, obvious instances of overdubbing. It helps that Zenon is such a delightfully fidgety stylist (a peripatetic, mellifluous presence); that Loueke’s mastery of his instrument, from well-deep traditional rhythms to cutting-edge effects, enables him to both solo and fill in the bass parts, sometimes simultaneously; and that it isn’t a strain for Ballard to incorporate the African and Caribbean musical heritages of his cohorts into his approach. Consequently, there is frequently majesty in this mischief.