Brian Blade: Serving the music

For the eminent jazz drummer and bandleader, who brings his Fellowship Band to Eugene and Portland this week, drumming in a band is about completing relationships

by KALEB DAVIES

The first time I saw Brian Blade, he was playing with Wayne Shorter at Bonn with 59,000 views, 375 likes, and 5 dislikes. The video had been recommended to me by Derek Sims, my instructor at the Alan Jones Academy of Music. I remember being intently focused at about the 6:30 mark. Shorter significantly increases the tension with a long note and Blade pauses to yell before repeatedly smashing his cymbals.

Seeing the expression on Blade’s face when Shorter hit that note has influenced my playing a lot. He was listening to what John and Daniel were playing before right before Wayne played that note, so he knew how it fit in and what exactly it meant. Brian’s tirade of crashes only delivers its devastating impact because it fits perfectly with the amount of tension being released in that moment. This has influenced me to listen to the musicians around me and not play the latest Luke Holland Esq fill I’ve been working on, but to fit my role of supplying “color, and rhythmic and harmonic motion” as Brian Blade himself would say.

blade

Like the moment in that video, Brian Blade’s highly textured playing contains many surprises, with moments of rapid tension growth and extreme climaxes. This has inspired me to think of the drum set as more than just a groove and fill machine, but also as an ambience creator. I try to incorporate this idea into my playing whenever possible.

Alan Jones sums it up perfectly. “He has an absolutely unique voice, and an immense amount of ability on the instrument,” he says. “He’s been a huge influence on a whole generation of drummers. As a composer and bandleader, he really has a style that you can identify and that is beautiful. He’s a very diverse and excellent musician, not just a drummer. I think most importantly, he’s a beautiful person, very humble and wise. There’s really no way in which I don’t respect and admire Brian Blade.”

Brian Blade started singing in his gospel church choir when he was growing up in Shreveport, Louisiana. His brother, Brady Blade Jr., played drums for church, and inspired Brian to focus on them throughout middle and high school. They took drum lessons from the same teacher. Every lesson, all they had was a grey Remo™ practice pad that they used to work on rudimentary exercises.

“It was humbling,” Brian Blade remembers. “If you couldn’t deal with these exercises just on this, when you get to the drums you really won’t be doing much more.” In high school, his teacher recommended albums by John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and other similar jazz giants, and Blade says that opened up the whole world for him.

At Loyola University, Blade had two drum teachers who taught him two completely different and valuable ways of playing the drum set. Studying in New Orleans gave him the chance to play with the best musicians in the area. Blade started the Fellowship Band in 1997 after he met Jon Cowherd, Chris Thomas, Melvin Butler, and Myron Walden. Since then, he has toured with that group as well as with Wayne Shorter’s quartet, Chick Corea, and others. He released Mama Rosa in 2009, a solo album based on homemade four track recordings, on which he sings and plays guitar. After touring heavily for many years, Blade is pretty settled now back home in Louisiana, once again playing drums for his church.

Blade brings his Fellowship Band to the Shedd on Wednesday February 24 and to the Portland Jazz Festival this Thursday, February 25. I talked to Blade last week about his career and philosophy of music. Answers have been edited for clarity.

Influences and inspirations

Brian Blade: I guess ultimately Elvin Jones has been my greatest influence and inspiration, but Art Blakey, Papa Jo Jones, Paul Motian, Johnny Vidacovich, David Lee Jr, and others such as Jeff Porcaro of Toto, Bernard Purdie, Benny Benjamin. There’s so many influences; they all created such a sound. Those are some of my favorites.

The role of the drummer in an ensemble

I like to have a perspective of the music in that everyone making that music is sort of standing on a single line, side by side, and at any moment one might step just in front of that line and then back onto the line but almost like walking a wire together. Each of us holds that string, and it’s equal standing, including the drums. Hopefully, when there’s the necessity for the dynamic drama that only the drums really can supply, then the one who makes that choice in the moment —  hopefully it’s right and it serves the song. It’s hard to say; it’s constantly moving, teetering, or ebbing and flowing from that line, I think.

I don’t think it matters who’s leading, because essentially you’re referring to your bandmates, and you want to make something wholistic and something — although comprised of individuals — singular in voice. Obviously, too many heads of something is a monster. It’s always great to have that delegation, to know who to look to.

For me, it doesn’t change with a style necessarily. I think there’s still the fundamental adherence to “being the drummer,” and supplying grooves, color, and rhythmic and harmonic motion. Whether you’re dotting i’s and crossing t’s within a lyrical line of a singer, or if it’s a saxophone and a trumpet, or just guitar — it’s always this relationship that you’re trying to complete.

You’re trying to supply that thing that hopefully is needed to make it go higher and make it be that much stronger — stronger in the sense of being felt. Hopefully when I’m doing that, whenever I’m truly serving the music, I don’t have a conflict of genre. Those things don’t enter into my thinking. I think about what is before me right now — what I am in at that moment.

The Fellowship Band

I started it because of the inspiration that came from Jon Cowherd — meeting him, Chris Thomas, Melvin Butler, and Myron Walden. Their voices turn around in my head, and I feel as if I have someone specific to write for when I write. I hear their voices. I wouldn’t say that it makes it easy to write for them, but it makes it slow in a way that has a real purpose and sort of tailored composing. I love that.

Brian Blade. Photo: Ron Beenen.

Brian Blade. Photo: Ron Beenen.

The lead role is always shifting depending on where we are in the music and what the music is dictating. Myron might make cues, Jon might set the tempo, Chris or I might say, “Now let’s move on,” or Melvin might say, “Let’s stay.” It’s great, because we’re always watching each other. We acknowledge who’s at the head of that moment, and we can make it work together. It’s great to share that as a band. I try to accept and carry out my responsibilities as best I can, depending on what that is from moment to moment.

I guess the only difference between my part in the Fellowship Band and my part when playing with someone else is a personal trip that I bring to the Fellowship Band: the writing, my personal experience, and my direct thoughts and feelings that come through the compositions. [When] playing with someone else, I’m obviously trying to bring all my experiences with me, but it’s not so much my vision of the thing, it’s my part in someone else’s vision. I’m thankful for that just as well, and I hope that I treat them with equal importance and grace.

Keeping a band together

Communicating, talking to each other, and spending time with each other is immeasurable for the first thing. Not that there aren’t some struggles from time to time, but I don’t think that we’ve ever had a disagreement in the Fellowship Band. It kind of sounds ridiculous to me. It’s like well, what are we here for? If there’s some fundamental misunderstanding of what you’re after, then it might not be something that’s gonna last. Just keep playing together, man.

I would’ve never predicted that the Fellowship band or anything would last for years and years, and the relationships grow deeper and deeper. You can’t make those sort of things happen. They are made to happen, but you can’t make it happen; you can’t force people to be in your life or to love you or agree with you. Hopefully, you just have that given.

Living the jazz life

In the ‘90s I accepted sort of the nomadic lifestyle. I never said to myself, “I want to go on tour and live out of my suitcase for four months at a time.” It just sort of turned into this life, and thankfully I’ve been able to do it. I would just travel and end up in a city and stay in a bed and breakfast for a week or so until the next tour would begin and lead everybody else wherever that would be. It was fun; I did a lot. The only things I owned were my drums and a bag of clothes and my guitar; that was all I needed. In a way it kind of still is. *laughs*

But, that was then. *laughs* That was many years ago. I’ve settled since then. I married a few years ago and I’ve been about as happy as I was back then. We’ve moved back to where we’re from in Louisiana. I’m getting a little bit older, and [his relatives] are too, so it’s great to see them regularly, and not just at annual visits at Christmas. That tends to not be enough after a while. It’s been great, and I’m not playing shows much.

I’m still playing with Wayne Shorter’s quartet as much as he would like, and any opportunities for the Fellowship Band, and before that I had the Mama Rosa and I’m still trying to work on that. Also, this project with my dad and my brother is called the Hallelujah Train. So, there’s things to keep me busy, but not to the point where I’m not home *laughs* it leaves me to reflect and appreciate it.

How to make a life in jazz

I’ve been fortunate enough to have great opportunities and be in places. I went to school in New Orleans, I had great mentors, and they gave me opportunities and gave me chances even as I was developing. Other than just doing that, living where you are and taking advantage of all those opportunities that are there for you to listen and to play, I don’t know how to answer that. You kind of just train yourself along the way as best you can, and hopefully people still listen, people still pay attention, and you’ll be able to hopefully support yourself by doing what you love.

It’s a great gift, I feel like. It’s not always the case. I suppose if I had to do something else to support my family, it would not take away my love of the music; that’s not gonna change. Whether it’s paying bills, I’m still gonna write, I’m still gonna play as much as I can.

Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band perform at The Shedd 868 High Street, Eugene on Feb. 24, and in a Portland Jazz Festival double bill with Alicia Olatuja at 7 pm Thursday, February 25, at Revolution Hall, 1300 SE Stark Street, Portland.

Kaleb Davies is a young percussionist studying jazz at the Alan Jones Academy of Music. He is also forming a garage rock band with a couple of friends, and recently played a mini tour with the amplified strings + keyboard group ARCO-PDX.

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