Brian Blade: The Sharpest Blade
Brian Blade belongs to that category of musicians of whom it could be said if they didn’t exist someone would have had to invent them. In an increasingly category-driven and clique-ridden music world, he is a musician who is quietly going about the business of destroying effete musical boundaries. He has been first-call drummer for leaders as disparate as Harry Connick Jr., Kenny Garrett, Daniel Lanois, Joni Mitchell and, currently, Wayne Shorter; his own passions move freely from Laura Nyro to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. If these associations have brought him name recognition in the jazz and avant-pop worlds, it is through his own seven-man project, Brian Blade Fellowship, that he has been most concertedly contesting the notion that all working musicians must squeeze into their heavily policed boxes. As evidenced on The Fellowship’s two Blue Note CDs—1998’s self-titled release and this year’s Perceptual—the line-up dares to propose that a blazing alto saxophonist and an atmospheric pedal-steel guitarist can share the improvising stage; that there is room in modern jazz for country twang and Copland’s wide-open spaces, that the Columbine massacre might be as pivotal a topic for instrumental requiem as racial injustice and the nuclear threat were for Charles Mingus in the 1960s.
Born in Shreveport, La., Blade came up playing in his father’s Baptist church and studying with serious master teachers simultaneously. These parallel lines of development seem to have given him a pronounced affinity for the place of outpoured feeling and pure form in music. They also undoubtedly account for his ability to move inside of diverse musical circles where consummate technical mastery and fervent
lyricism are de rigueur.
JazzTimes: What’s the relationship between family and music for you?
Perhaps it’s the nurturing. My family and community were always there for me. Never pushed me one way or the other. It was just, find your path and we’ll be there for you. That sort of thing. For me, the music is just a reflection of that. My older brother is a musician, a drummer, five years older. He’s great. And my father’s a preacher and a great singer. He plays a little bass around the house and an occasional blues. They naturally had a love for music and trusted enough in my strivings to say, “Get him a teacher.” I started in the church. My brother went to college when I was about 13 and everybody looked at me like, “Hey, it’s your turn.” I don’t remember really choosing it. It was like, “Here’s the sticks, this is the deal.” But thankfully it unconsciously taught me the essentials about playing in a group. Taught me what you need to serve a musical situation.
JazzTimes: What kind of stuff did you play outside of the church?
Oh, all kinds of bands. My teachers primarily played jazz and R&B. I was in little punk bands in high school with my friends. Some youthful releases of energy where we were writing our little rock-and-roll songs. It was good to grow up with that sense of making music in the different little camps. In a way it’s still what I’m doing.
JazzTimes: What do you think you would be doing if you weren’t a musician?
It’s weird, man. Like all of a sudden I feel like I’ve been living on the road and making records and I’m thankful for it but, like I said, I don’t really remember really choosing this lifestyle. It’s evolving into this moment, but I was studying anthropology in college and had these cultural ideas of traveling that way. It was always based on a musical yearning or a spiritual yearning to see how these things connected across the globe. Of course, I got sidetracked. I never got to study so much in that field, I was going over to Kenny Garrett’s. And that was the beginning of a whole other chapter.
JazzTimes: I’ve read that you were a pretty good amateur tennis player.
Yeah, man. I had eyes of going to Wimbledon. I was playing regionally, but after the drums came in I had to dedicate myself to one or the other for eight hours every day. Unfortunately, I couldn’t do both and the drums just sort of took over.
JazzTimes: When did jazz come into it as something you were intensely curious about?
My teacher in high school and my brother were always talking about Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Miles Davis. I didn’t know these records yet because I didn’t grow up with jazz in the house—it was mostly gospel and what I heard on the radio. Then a friend came back from college and turned me on to some records. I remember hearing Giant Steps for the first time and thinking, “This is inspiring to me.” I started buying records from the names I’d been hearing. I remember buying Miles at the Plugged Nickel and hearing Tony [Williams] for the first time. It got me to thinking, “How much more could they express on their instruments or as a group?” When I moved to New Orleans, almost every day I’d go to the store with eight dollars and think, “Either I’ll eat or I’ll buy this Wayne Shorter record.” I was less concerned with eating than [getting] records at that point.
JazzTimes: What were some of the things that stayed stuck on the turntable at that point?
A Love Supreme. Joni Mitchell’s Hejira, which a friend gave to me after I’d just started driving. Unconsciously, I learned it all. To this day it reveals something new. Heavy Weather by Weather Report, and then Wayne’s albums like Night Dreamer and Juju.
JazzTimes: Did you listen more as a fan or dissect them musically, too?
Initially as a fan, but then I realized I had to learn how to execute some of these things I was hearing. It happened gradually with Art Blakey and Max Roach, and then Elvin Jones and Joe Chambers. I tried to learn a lot of those things just to extend my vocabulary. If I didn’t nail them exactly in terms of technicality, I got close in terms of the spirit and feeling and having my own sense of the sound come through. I think it’s important when you focus on something pure that you have it in your vision to hopefully become yourself out of that.
JazzTimes: Drummers think about sound and tone and tuning as much as other instrumentalists do. When did that come into it for you—tuning and cymbal colors and the kind of sound you wanted to project?
Always. From the time I heard John Coltrane’s Ballads album and the closer you listen you realize Elvin [Jones] is only playing the snare drum and the bass drum and the hi-hat and all this music is coming out of the speakers. And then you sit down to that same configuration of drums and you wonder, “Man, how did he get all of this depth and tonality and swirl and groove out of just a minimal amount of things?” There was a long period in New Orleans that I only played snare drum and bass drum on gigs. Partly it was out of discipline and partly it was necessity because we were only playing for tips and I couldn’t afford to bring everything. But out of these adverse situations came a lot of learning. It’s important for drummers to recognize that within all those rhythms there is a harmonic influence. It’s important, I think, to hook into the aurality of the instrument. In terms of your approach to learning, how much knowledge derived from your analytical side and how much from the feeling side.
JazzTimes: With a cat like Elvin do you break his kit and his patterns, that sort of thing?
The equipment I maybe knew about initially. But the more I got into these recordings I realized that 99 percent of it, 100 percent of it even, is in their hands—how they strike the cymbal or the drum and how they pull sound out. One time in New Orleans it occurred to me when Jeff Watts sat in on a gig at the same drum kit as one of my teachers, Dave Lee. It was unbelievable. They both sounded so great but so different. Absolutely different. When Jeff sat down at the same drum kit it was his sound. There was that individuality. I think it’s in the back of your mind if you’re an artist or a human being that you want to blaze a path that has a uniqueness, especially if you’re going to write songs and offer these recordings to folks. But to get back to your question, I think there has to be a balance struck between the analytical and what I was doing when I was playing in church—that is, to serve the situation. Back then I wasn’t consciously thinking about what I was playing but trying to follow the organist and the words—just paying attention to the moment, which is what I still do every time now. Of course, I still try to put in that practice time alone, too. It’s a necessity—trying to confront deficiencies and get better at expressing things so that you’re not onstage struggling with the physical demands of playing an instrument. But the struggle is a part of it, too. There’ll always be something that you want to execute and can’t or find the distance between the unseen and your hands can be a long way. Jimi Hendrix used to talk about the gap between the sound he heard in his head and what he was playing.
JazzTimes: Does that gap occur for you, too?
Yeah, quite a bit. Hopefully it’s not miles away. Hopefully it’s something that’s just out of your grasp. Hopefully. I hit a crossroads recently. I was wanting to get better faster like I did 10 years ago. Ten years ago I was aware that I was getting better, but now that I’m older I really have to push myself to get to the next plateau, to not feel like I’m standing still. I can’t imagine Jimi saying something like that, you know what I mean? God! It’s amazing to think of someone making a sound that stands as an archetype feeling that way.
JazzTimes: When did you and Kenny Garrett meet?
I was playing at the Village Vanguard with Harry Connick Jr. and Kenny came down and the next day we went out to his place and just played all day. We became fast friends. We don’t play enough now. Doing that Coltrane recording was daunting. I thought, “How can I safely approach this music that I revere so much?” We can’t possibly be thinking about trying to play this. But we tried to approach it as honestly as possible.
JazzTimes: Did everyone have that trepidation?
Oh, how could you not if you are truly a fan of music and were a fan of Coltrane’s music even more? So it was intimidating. Because the whole idea is to not only have your own personal interpretation of those songs—well hopefully it can only be that—but to not have it be a bunch of thievery and to hopefully breathe a new life into them. I trust Kenny though, and when I listen to that record I can almost remove myself from it. It was inspiring to hear him and Pat [Metheny] because they have such strong sounds and hopefully we did present a new take on these songs that are so familiar to so many people. Quite a challenge.
JazzTimes: When you were studying, did symphonic training have an impact on your development?
It had a great effect. I was in the symphonic band all through junior high school and all through college. I think it’s good to have all of these musical experiences because they all reveal something to you. I was still playing in a group and there wasn’t this improvisatory platform that presents itself in jazz music, but within the interpretation of what was on the page there’s a lot of sympathy and focus required. The thick and thin of it is what I love. All that textured stuff. I think that’s why there are seven people in this Fellowship group. If there were 17, I’d be happy. Somehow you want the quality of sound to thicken without losing that quickness of communication like you’d have in a trio where the exchange of ideas goes around so fast. If you can balance those things with seven people, where everyone is making decisions conscious of the group and the total sum of the sound, then magic occurs and you take flight.
JazzTimes: When the Fellowship rehearses, what sort of things do you focus on and how long generally is a rehearsal?
Initially we spent several days together. My instinct was to write and to get people I trust musically and on a human level. I knew what everybody was going to bring was going to be powerful. So it was just a matter of trying to get to the emotional center of a song and finding what that might mean to each individual at any moment. So getting to know each other musically was the whole thing—we didn’t really spend a lot of time rehearsing. It all came together pretty quickly.
JazzTimes: It’s interesting to hear you talk about the emotional center being the focus because that’s more how somebody in a rock thing or a soul thing would approach a song. It’s rather atypical of the way people think about approaching jazz stuff today.
Not to deny that it is a thinking people’s music, but when I listen to music if I ever catch myself thinking, I’m in trouble—I know something is wrong. If I ever go to hear live music and something is on my mind, I’m in trouble. If I’m not feeling it from my gut but I think about it later, then I know it’s right. Hopefully the music that comes through me or this band isn’t just cerebral.
JazzTimes: How did the Fellowship’s instrumentation evolve?
Well, since I write on guitar I love the simpatico of piano and guitar—the chordal soup that comes up when they congeal. And with pedal steel I love this arc of color that comes in and out on an instrument that some people have confined to one world of music. It’s a little orchestra. Not in any way to compare myself to Duke Ellington, but I feel like I have a Johnny Hodges to write for in [the Fellowship’s multi-reedist] Myron Walden.
JazzTimes: The Fellowship’s music is set up in a way that’s very open and yet has a series of movements and little suites in there, too.
I definitely think that’s where symphonic and orchestral experiences come in. Or maybe it’s just my mindscape; I don’t know. I just feel like it ought to have this ebb and flow about it. Maybe my favorite music always had that somehow. Things I could cite like A Love Supreme or even Electric Ladyland and Rites of Spring, where a journey takes place or a season unfolds. That’s what I’ve always loved about music—the depiction of something natural.
JazzTimes: Some of the writing on the new record was provoked by the Columbine incident and the relationship of that sort of social inspiration to some of Mingus’ music. That challenge of creating abstract forms that speak to weighty social realities.
To think about there being any kind of social commentary in instrumental music can seem ridiculous, sometimes. Basically, in terms of point of reference, you only have a title and a series of tones and rhythms that you hear. You don’t hear a libretto or a song in words. It is kind of a stretch to get people to look at things that inspire your songs and attempt to shed a little light on human conditions. But hopefully in the end you get some joy from those grooves and tones and they touch folks, you know? I know that with the name Fellowship there’s an idealism to live in a place where there’s a circularity of energy between the band and the audience. Trying to effect the social condition is a grand idea, but the idea of people coming together on stage is symbolic of what you’d like to see happen on the street, in life. My father was a minister in a church called Zion Baptist and those folks who raised me stick in my memory. Thanks to them, I always do the right thing as a man because I know what the right thing is. I know what I hold as a high ideal and that’s what the name of the band is for me.
This is hairy because I play a lot of different stuff. The one thing that does stay the same are my cymbals. They’re predominantly old, but I do play this one new Zildjian Constantinople. A very light 22-inch cymbal. I usually play just three cymbals. My others are two 22-inch from the ’50s. My hi-hats are 16-inch ‘A’s and probably not a matching set of ‘A’s, but they were in the pawn shop like that. I love what the Zildjian cymbals do and I like dealing with that family of folks. With Joni I chose to play a larger set—bass drum was 24-inch with a 12-inch tom and a 16-inch floor tom—they were these beautifully crafted Ayotte drums. With Kenny and the Fellowship I mostly play my Sonors from 1971, with a little 18-inch bass drum or my Gretsch made in ’63, which consists of a 20-inch and 13-inch tom and a 16-inch floor tom. My brother recently had me check out this company called Mapex. They sent me two snare drums, which I really like. My sticks are John Riley Zildjian, Vic Firth mallets and a series of different brushes—Ludwig and Regal Tip and Cannon. The first guitar I bought to write on was a Gibson LG3, a little acoustic honeytone from the ’40s. I don’t travel with it anymore because I bought this Gibson from the late ’30s, a mail-order guitar they made during the war. It’s a Cromwell archtop. I also have this 175T Gibson, hollow, very shallow electric guitar. My amp is an old Gibson Invader—long since faded out of production. A very warm sounding amp, great for songwriting. I don’t need effects. I only need a tone and I’m off. My piano is a turn-of-the-century Mason & Hamlin, a large upright piano with no pinblock. It’s interesting the way you tune it. The strings actually hang on hooks. Kind of bizarre, cool little instrument.
I just came out of a period of listening to a lot of Laura Nyro. I totally got into New York Tendaberry and Eli and the Thirteenth Confession. There’s so much bravery on her recordings. She’ll start in such a subtle manner, so plaintive, and then all of a sudden there’ll be the most brave outcry, like Ohhhhhh. I love the sort of challenge that comes out—this destruction of form that comes out in her music that’s [still] so accessible on a pop level.
Son House comes back to my listening more than anything, maybe. There’s just something so emotionally high and raw and untamed. It possesses this bizarre duality for me. Like an absolute perfection where you wouldn’t change a thing but also where your analytical mind shouldn’t come into it because if you thought about it you’d think all of this is wrong on a technical level.
I’ve been in a Miles phase again because I started playing with Wayne. He’s one of those people who reveals so much and who achieves that ideal of telling a story through instrumental music. He can do it with one note. So I’ve been listening to the Plugged Nickel box set and some bootleg things, too.
I’ve been wanting to write some music for a string octet. I loved the collaboration of [strings arranger] Eumir Deodato and Björk on Homogenic and so I’ve been listening a lot to Bartok’s string quartet. Just to think that there are only four elements to this equation and all this music is coming out is staggering to me.
Recommended CDs Featuring Brian Blade
Kenny Garrett Pursuance: The Music of John Coltrane (Warner Bros.)
Mark Turner: Ballad Session (Warner Bros.)
Joni Mitchell: Taming the Tiger (Reprise)
Elvis Costello & Bill Frisell: The Sweetest Punch: The Songs of Costello and Bacharach (Polygram)
Brad Mehldau: Introducing Brad Mehldau (Warner Bros.)
Joshua Redman: Spirit of the Moment: Live at the Village Vanguard (Warner Bros.)
Originally published in November 2000