Continuing our mini-series on drummers informed by the Afro-diasporic elements of New Orleans culture, here are a pair of interviews with Brian Blade, who turned 41 on July 25th. The first conversation, which originally ran on http://www.musician.com, comes from 2001, not long after Blade had joined the then newly-formed Wayne Shorter Quartet with Danilo Perez and John Patitucci. The second, which ran on the now-dormant webzine, http://www.jazz.com, is a composite of a June 2008 interview on WKCR and a phone conversation in the spring of 2009. Most of the expository text comes from my introduction to the jazz.com piece.
As I wrote in my preface to the earlier piece, Blade, then 30, was “one of the few drummers with a distinct personality in hardcore jazz—credits include Kenny Garrett, Joshua Redman, Pat Metheny, and Mark Turner—who also has stamped his imprint on popular music through stadium gigs and recordings with Joni Mitchell, Daniel Lanois, Seal, Emmylou Harris, and Bob Dylan.”
At the time, Blade had just released Perceptual [Blue Note], the second release by Fellowship Band, on which the leader and his unit—Kurt Rosenwinkel, guitar; Myron Walden, alto saxophone; Melvin Butler, tenor saxophone; Jon Cowherd, piano; Christopher Thomas, bass—interpreted original tunes by Blade and Cowherd that drew on a range of heartland folk styles, with guest turns by Lanois and Mitchell punctuating the flow.
What were your earliest musical influences?
The way I was brought up, boundary lines were never laid on the ground between people or the music. I always felt comfortable trying to surrender to the situation, no matter what banner may fly above it. You’re always trying to serve the song. My father is a minister and a great singer. My brother, Brady, Jr., who is five years older, is also a drummer. He left for college when I was around 13. He had been playing drums in church all this time, and when he left it was like everyone turned to me and said, “Okay, it’s your turn.” It was my duty, in a way. I never thought about it in terms of continuing into the next decade.
So you were just plunged into the waters of drumming, as it were.
[laughs] In a way, in the church environment, but there it was okay, because there’s tolerance there.
What was the sound of that music?
My father would tell me of his memories, and how there wasn’t even a piano; when he was coming up, people would clap their hands and sing and stomp their feet. I played right behind a great organist named Colette Murdoch, and there was piano and, of course, myself and the voices. Hindsight reveals that it taught me the essentials needed to be a part of a group, not only as a musician, but as a human being.
You mean beyond technique, in terms of the spiritual aspect of participating in a collective.
Absolutely. These people who would sing these songs didn’t come to music in a methodical way. They didn’t study it. They just sang, because it was praise! Hopefully, that’s what you’re trying to reach for. People get used to structure and chord progression. But when you’re not aware of these things, the spirit has to move you. So you surrender to that. I think it means a lot. Of course, it’s good to have balance. Now that I am playing music and making recordings, I want to know more and more.
Was Shreveport anything like New Orleans in microcosm, a smaller version with a lot of cultural influences coming in?
Not really. In a way, you could split the state of Louisiana in half culturally. Where I grew up, at the northwestern tip, there is this triangularity. Texas and Arkansas and Louisiana collide there. So it’s quite different from New Orleans, being this port of entry for so many cultures. It’s more inland, so you don’t have such a thick soup, so to speak, on the streets.
Was there a lot of blues?
A lot of country music?
Absolutely. Bands from the South and from across the globe would come to Shreveport. I saw the Modern Jazz Quartet there, Dizzy Gillespie was my first concert, the Neville Brothers would come through… So the Diaspora was presented to me.
Did it all seem like a continuum to you?
It absolutely did. That’s another wall that never came up for me, the sacred and secular. I’m still trying to do the same thing, and hopefully project the same feeling. I was always playing in high school, different music. When I went to New Orleans it just became more of a concentration on instrumental and vocal jazz music.
It’s interesting, because your teenage years coincide with the trend toward compartmentalization of music in the broader media – more compartmentalized radio, MTV is beginning. Maybe in Shreveport it wouldn’t have hit quite so strongly.
Yes. I’m thankful for the folks I grew up around in Shreveport, because everybody was open to so many different things. Even the ones who weren’t had a certain discipline that they wanted to share with me, and I am thankful for that, too. But I always knew, no matter what, that playing the music was always a joy, whether it was jazz or an R&B gig, or playing with a country band. It was always the joy of it. I try to carry that into every situation.
How do you prepare for the different feels of, say, swinging on the ride cymbal in jazz vis-a-vis, say, laying down a rock backbeat?
I think it’s important that you realize what the situation requires. No matter what your strong suit may be, hopefully you can find that singular thread that knits the music together, rhythmically. Again, for me, it all boils down to serving the song. Technically, I draw on the things that I’ve practiced, that I still practice, listening to recordings and trying to learn how Elvin Jones might execute something, or Art Blakey, or John Bonham for that matter — people who have created a sound, possess such an amazing groove and a great sense of tone and projection. When you analyze and absorb as much as you possibly can, it sets you up for any situation.
Let’s talk about some of your major influences. You’ve mentioned Elvin Jones as your hero.
Yes. Fortunately, I’ve been able to see Elvin several times over the last ten years actually, and God, it gets better and better every time. A Love Supreme was one of the first records that sticks in my consciousness. It’s an ideal that you aspire to. Also the things that Elvin plays on “Ballads” with only the snare drum, bass drum, cymbals and hi-hat. It sounds like a village of folks playing rhythm! He can create such a wide dynamic.
I should also refer to my teachers in New Orleans. John Vidacovich was and still is important. Sometimes when I hear him I think, “Oh God, I’ve stolen everything from Johnny V.” But hopefully that’s not the case. Aside from having always the deepest sense of groove, Johnny is always concerned with this sort of melodic motion coming from the drums. He moves the music and shapes it, and kind of gets inside of it. He’s more of a philosophical teacher than one that taught in a methodical way.
He did that great book with Herlin Riley.
Yeah, New Orleans Drumming. Totally. Herlin is another from New Orleans, and David Lee, Jr., who used to play with Sonny Rollins. Herlin to me almost embodies what New Orleans is. It’s like a perpetually modern approach. When you hear brass bands in New Orleans, the arrangements are like turn-of-the-century, coming into 1900! But the grooves and approaches are still evolving. So Herlin somehow takes these street rhythms, and breathes into them a new perspective from a New Orleans viewpoint.
I used to hear David Lee play trio all the time with the alto saxophonist Earl Turbinton and the bassist James Singleton, and also in a piano trio with Ellis Marsalis. He always moved the music forward, kind of an unwavering force, totally swinging all the time, never losing sense of that motion. As a teacher he had me learning the names of certain beats — “This is a Merengue, this is a Calypso.” It was very specific. He had me playing out of books. A very methodical way of approaching the drums. He and Johnny Vidacovich had very different ideas of what they felt they needed to impart to me, and I kind of got the whole picture. It was good to have both perspectives; each is valid, and I don’t think you can have one without the other.
Was Ed Blackwell’s sound universe a big influence on you?
Absolutely. In Ed Blackwell there’s this Africanism, moreso like a Western African playing a drumset, in a way. He’s always playing these sort of little conversations within this four-legged instrument! It’s interesting how many ideas can come from one place.
Which emanates pretty directly from the fact that New Orleans historically was a place where drums could be played.
Totally. I used to go to Congo Square. From what I’ve learned, a slave would walk from Mississippi just to be there for a day, you know, to have this vigil, this drum… There is storytelling in the instrument and what you put into it — but only what you put into it, I think. You have to go to it wanting to tell people something. If you’re only playing beats, then what is it for?
In New Orleans there are certain idiomatic things that you have to do in playing certain functions that traverse the whole timeline. Was that part of your experience there?
Well, I did march in a few parades during Mardi Gras. For me, the most fun thing is to see the brass bands, and how the past, present and future all collide at that very moment when you’re listening to them. I listened to Paul Barbarin records at the suggestion of Ernie Ely, who is another hero of mine down there. I was a busboy at a little place on Decatur Street called the Palm Court, where a guy named Greg Stafford played trumpet and Ernie was the drummer. The way they played the swing beat was real! They were playing these songs the way I felt they should be played, with the sensitivity but the passion for it. It wasn’t as if it was something relegated to olden times.
Have you studied in any systematic way African music, Afro-Cuban music?
Only as a music fan. I love to listen to music, and I buy a lot of recordings. Most recently I’ve gotten into this singer who I think is from Mali; her name is Oumou Sangare. The drums are very soft on these recordings, but the rhythm is so strong. I think that’s what creates a groove, the interplay, and realizing that you may not have to do so much as the drummer to create something quite intense.
Is the science of rhythm in those cultures a different perspective than the trapset philosophy?
I think using all four limbs, perhaps it’s easy to get wrapped up in that, like the fact that you can create quite a complex landscape of rhythm. But to find that singular thread that makes the music live, that’s always the challenge. I’m a big fan of Paul Motian, and particularly Elvin Jones. Just one strike of the cymbal, there’s something transcendent in the sound.
You also mentioned John Bonham. Who are some of the people who influence the approach you take in your Rock life?
Well, for me John Bonham stands as one of the great drummers of any time. This density that comes from his sound and his sense of groove is unbelievable. So laid back, too, but at the same time moving the music forward. I always admired him. As well as Levon Helm of the Band records. He has this feeling that comes from a certain part of America, like Tennessee…
[LAUGHS] Well, there’s this thing that happens, like all these musics, Country and Bluegrass and R&B, they all kind of collide, and out of it comes someone like Levon Helm. You hear the Motown sound and you hear these Stax records; all of these grooves kind of come out in his playing, but it’s uniquely him at the same time.
What’s the attraction of Paul Motian’s sound?
Johnny Vidacovich introduced me to Bill Evans records, because he liked Paul Motian so much. He possesses this amazing looseness that is so lyrical, but also at the same time the pulse. People sometimes miss that Motian really moves and gets inside of the music. It’s quite a different approach from records where you hear Art Blakey or Philly Joe Jones play the drums. But at the same time there is this swing and, like I say, this pulsation that injects the music with a good feeling.
You were talking about David Lee being extremely specific and almost pedagogical in his teachings. Tell me about practice — what you practice now, and how much you practice? Or is it more bandstand-oriented?
Since I have been on the road quite a bit for the last six or seven years, it has been difficult to practice regularly, and it’s important to take advantage of the time you have. On the road a lot of it happens mentally. I play the guitar every day regardless of where I am, because I can take it into hotel rooms! It’s good to have that musical connection, no matter what.
When I’m at home and do get to practice, I like to sit at the drumset and play time for periods of ten minutes at a time. Sometimes I play song forms, but sometimes I just play time, make this continuous line of different things so that hopefully, in live situations which are so unpredictable and when all this stuff goes out the window, your physical instinct will kick in. I try to get around the drums comfortably and play things that I hear, challenging myself to execute things. Usually it’s the distance from your head to your hands that’s the problem; you slow things down and speed it up again, that sort of thing.
What was your practice like when you were younger and forming?
In New Orleans I spent a lot of time playing with my friend Christopher Thomas, the bass player, in bands with Peter Martin or Nicholas Payton, or just the two of us for an hour or two on different tempos, playing blues or song forms or just quarter-notes together to see how disciplined we could be, to see where each of us felt the pulse and if the groove was together. I think it’s important to have companionship with someone, to try to find your place in a group. Because you’re going to be playing with people hopefully! There won’t be many solo drum concerts coming in the future for me.
So as important as it is to tell narratives and so forth on the drums, it isn’t going to happen without extensive preparation.
I don’t think so. Some folks just have this ability to tell a story, but I don’t think anyone can bypass these fundamental things. I don’t think anyone wants to really! Most times it’s lonely, like spending time in your room, listening and trying to see how things are played and how to get a certain sound, so then you can hopefully be free of it once you play more and more with every experience.
A final point. Rather uniquely among drummers of your generation you’ve made a mark in the Pop and Jazz worlds. But your imperatives seem to come out of jazz in a very profound way, and to inflect your stance towards the other areas.
Well, jazz definitely is predominantly what I do play. I’m not offended by the word “Jazz.”
Some people are.
Yes. Well, I think we get caught up in terminology too much. Maybe it’s just where I grew up, but for me the music was this singular thing. I never put up too many walls between genres and all this. Maybe that’s presumptuous or puffed-up to say, I don’t know, but…
That said, what does jazz mean to you?
There’s the improvisatory freedom that you don’t really experience in other musics. Within the forms and constructions you play, it gives you the opportunity to take flight and create your own picture with each performance of maybe the same piece, or with a different group of people, or with the same group of people — you challenge each other to tell a story every time. It’s the improvisatory freedom which makes it magical. It’s unseen. Hopefully you go with no preconceptions, so that it truly is of the moment. That’s the beauty of jazz music. Not to say that you aren’t playing songs, because that’s also the challenge: With that freedom, can you really create this narrative and take the listener as well as the people playing together on a journey that completes a sort of circle.
* * * *
In 2008, after an eight-year gap, Fellowship—comprising the same core personnel stated above—performed on Season of Changes [Verve], a succinct, streamlined suite on which Blade shaped the flow through subtle permutations of groove and drum timbre.
During that interim, Blade had toured extensively with Shorter, Redman, Garrett, Herbie Hancock, Bill Frisell, David Binney, Edward Simon, and other upper echelon improvisers from different points on the stylistic spectrum. In the process, he burnished his stature among his generational peer group. In a Downbeat Blindfold Test a few years back, after remarking on Blade’s “real old-school sound,” drummer Jeff Ballard said: “Brian’s choices are amazing. What he plays is all for the composition. His mix of texture and tonality is perfect for that moment in the whole tune. So is his matching of sound to what’s going on in the placement. Also, he’s got patience with the biggest P on the planet. He forces things not to be automatic.”
Shortly before the jazz.com piece appeared, Chick Corea had hired Blade to play the second half of a long tour by his Five Peace Band project with John McLaughlin, Garrett, and Christian McBride, made a similar point. “After working with Brian for a couple of tours, he’s become one of my favorite drummers of all time,” Corea stated. “He thinks as a composer, and he’s very expressive. He carries the tradition not only of Philly Joe Jones and Roy Haynes and Tony Williams—in my mind, he kind of holds the torch of the creation of jazz drumming—but he also does what might be considered, in more conservative music, radical things. Like playing very quietly, Or not playing at all, or playing very edgy and bombastically, all within the same framework. He came in and the whole set turned around.”
This interview was framed around the release of Mama Rosa [Verve], on which Blade plays not a single beat on drums, but instead communicates with his voice and his guitar, revealing himself to be a first-class singer-songwriter. The 13-tune recital includes 10 Blade-penned songs that comprise a quasi-autobiography, touching on themes of faith, family, love, loss, and remembrance. Blade sings them without affect, allowing the power of his words to come through with phrasing and nuanced articulation. Lanois, the date’s producer, counterstates Blade’s message on guitar, Kelly Jones provides eloquent vocal harmony, and Fellowship colleagues Cowherd and Rosenwinkel also contribute to the proceedings.
“Revealing more of ourselves is always daunting,” Blade stated in the publicity materials attendant to the release. “But I feel like I need to keep challenging myself and peeling away layers to get to the core of who I am and what I have to offer.”
On Mama Rosa you reveal a side of yourself that you haven’t previously offered to the public. It’s a suite of music that includes ten songs you wrote while touring over the years. Can you tell me how the recording took shape? Is there an overall narrative arc, and did the songs fit cleanly into it? Was a lot of production involved?
As you say, it has been running parallel to my writing for the Fellowship Band, but in a very private way. Everything on the record was recorded at home on my 4-track, and it gave me enough satisfaction just to know, ok, they exist, and I’m fine with that. I’m thankful that I’ve had a little bit of time to write down my memories and experiences, and thoughts about my family, and life in general, and connect them with music. Some of those original four-track recordings are on the record as I did them in my little room, or various rooms around the world. But then it got to the point where I’d share them with my friend Daniel Lanois, and he encouraged me to try and make an entire record of it. As we went through the process he’d say, “Ok, I don’t think we can better this version from your home recording, so that’s on the record.”
Which of these songs is the first that you wrote, and when did you write it?
I guess “After the Revival.” Yes, that first song. I want to say on guitar, at least 12-13 years ago, even before Fellowship music started to come to me. It was a song written from the perspective of my mother, say, 1964, when she’s about to have my first child, my brother Brady. I was trying to think of what she might have been feeling at that time. My father is a pastor, so he often used to go out to preach at revivals when we were growing up. He was trying to build a home and take care of his family, but also go forth with his own mission as a minister. It’s really all about my grandmother Rosa, who is my mother’s mother, and also my mother and brother.
Can you tell me something about Rosa? Is she from Shreveport?
Yes, she is. Basically, she always took care of people’s houses, like a housekeeper her entire life, and she ran several kitchens at Southern University and places like that around Shreveport, Louisiana. Actually, the cover photograph is from the Jaguar Grille, which is the Southern University kitchen there. She’s a sweetheart! So I felt it was fitting to dedicate the record to her, and what she means to me, and hopefully the songs embody the joy she brought to my life and to so many other folks.
I gather you’ve recently moved back to Shreveport.
I’ve been spending more time there since I gave up my place in New York, just to connect with them more than just Christmas every year, as I get older and they get a little older.
This happened about two years ago. Has living there had any impact on your musical production? You remarked in conjunction with this recording (and I’m paraphrasing) that in a certain way you feel it’s time to be more open about who you are.
Well, maybe so. I don’t think I was ever concealing anything necessarily. But particularly with this Mama Rosa music, they almost feel like diary entries to me. It’s kind of like, “well, do I want the world to read my diary?” No, not really. But at the same time, it’s my music, too, which is something I love to share. So I felt, well, I have to let it go in order to move forward and feel like I’m doing the right thing not only for myself, but for the grand scheme of things.
When did you start writing songs?
I want to say ‘96-‘97, just before the first Fellowship record came out.
So the process begins during or right after the time you’d been on the road with master singer-songwriters—Emmy Lou Harris, Dylan, Joni Mitchell.
Exactly. And Daniel Lanois.
Who you met in New Orleans. Was writing something that always had interested you? Did it start to emerge for you at that time?
It did, particularly from being around my friend Daniel Lanois, and watching him in the process, how he would write down ideas and form them into poetry and connect them with music. Obviously, Joni Mitchell, too. She’s my hero and my greatest inspiration for this way of seeing a story unfold, and putting down your observances and experiences in some way that might strike against someone else’s life and experience. That’s why I think her music endures and keeps getting deeper and deeper, the more I listen to it. It’s always a privilege to be around her and to be around Daniel or Emmy-Lou or Dylan, and to see the attention they place on all the elements of storytelling.
Are you or have you been a big reader? I noticed in an old interview that you majored in anthropology at Loyola University in New Orleans.
Yeah. I always sort of wanted to be Alan Lomax in this life, just go around finding cultural significance through people’s music. In a way, I’m doing it as a musician, strangely enough, not necessarily documenting other people’s music, but trying to take in as much as I can, and having it distill itself in me. It’s a constant research, a constant study, and you’re never there—you’re just on the trip, I think.
You moved to New Orleans in ‘88. How soon after arriving did you meet Daniel Lanois?
It would have been around ‘91-‘92. Maybe a little later.
By then, he’d already produced Dylan.
Yes. The second record, For the Beauty of Wynona, was about to come out, and he was going to go on tour with Darrell Johnson, who played bass with the Neville Brothers at the time. Daniel made a record with them called Yellow Moon. But we met and rehearsed at a little theater in Algiers where he was holed up, and became fast friends. We went on the road for three months, and we haven’t stopped since. We’re bound as brothers.
Was he the person who led you to Joni Mitchell and Dylan and Emmy-Lou Harris?
I was already very aware of their music and a fan.
I meant personally.
To Joni…yes, I guess to Emmy and Bob as well.
Songwriting. Apart from the inspiration and the message behind the words, it involves a specific craft. Did it take a long time for you to develop the craft?
It’s a good thing that in my time off from the road, or even on the road, I put down every little fragment, or thought, or word, or chord that might be an inkling to something whole, something larger, a full song, a full idea. In those times, it’s almost like a meditation. You just try to stay in it as long as you can, to focus on the thought. Hopefully, I’m getting better and better at that. Same with the Fellowship Band music. I’m trying to write specifically for the guys in the band and for myself to hopefully get in on this story, to be able to deliver it and know it well. I guess the challenge is to do that…well, not necessarily quickly, because you can’t rush it. The process is still a mystery to me. You’re still almost grabbing…reaching out into the darkness for these little points of light, and you’re not sure where they’re coming from. But if you can just be in the moment and hold onto it as long as you can… It’s hopefully getting better.
But from what you’re saying, storytelling has always been an abiding interest for you.
I’d imagine that your time in New Orleans perhaps influenced you to apply the notion of storytelling to the way you think about drumming.
New Orleans was my first time away from my family, starting college in a whole new community, one of the greatest places in the world, so unique in feeling and just the emotional vibe on the streets and the beat that lives there—and my teachers. John Vidacovich was very important. There’s a deep sense of groove, but also a deep concern with creating melodic motion from the drums, with moving and shaping the music. He’s more of a philosophical teacher than one that taught in a methodical way. David Lee had me play out of books, and placed names on certain beats—one is a calypso, another is a Merengue.
I guess along the way, my experience in New Orleans finds its way into all my music. Unconsciously, it’s just a part of how I go about making music.
Your creativity emerged on this very solid foundation. It sounds like a similar process was at play in your songwriting.
I must say that my teachers definitely gave me that foundation. You’re always grappling with that place between your head and your hands that you want to connect, and not have a gap between what you hear and what you execute. I used to go to Congo Square, where a slave would walk from Mississippi just to be there for a day, to do this vigil and play the drum… There is storytelling in the instrument, but you have to go to it wanting to tell people something. If you’re only playing beats, then what is it for?
Now, with the songwriting, I felt I was a little on my own. But the thing is, even before I met Daniel or Joni or Bob Dylan or Emmy-Lou, their records existed. What I definitely know is that when I hear something that touches me, then I go into the analytical process after it touches me, to say, “Ok, what is it that touches me about it? And can I put it into words? What makes it so emotionally powerful?” So I try to step away from my own writing and hopefully have that objectivity as well. “After the Revival.” What is this song trying to tell you? Who’s involved? Where are we? Is it in a specific place? Is it literal or is it more metaphorical? When you start to put words on things, too, perhaps it gets a little closer to the bone. Joni Mitchell’s influence also infuses the instrumental music, the Fellowship Band music, and it’s just as close to my heart as the Mama Rosa songs, but when the words enter the picture it’s maybe a slightly different trip, a more personal trip.
A lot of the songs on Fellowship Band’s Season of Changes sound like they could very well have lyrics, and for all I know, they do and you haven’t recorded them.
Some of the songs do begin with a lyrical idea, but then they end up living in the instrumental world. I guess I’m never so sure as to where a song is going to end up living. The process is that either I end up develoing this one sentence into a full lyrical idea, or else that idea is just a starting point that will give me the instrumental story. I’m never sure. Maybe that’s the great thing about the mystery, too. It throws you into the process, and you just have to take the trip.
When did you form Fellowship Band? You’ve had a fairly stable personnel.
It starts with Jon Cowherd. Jon was already at Loyola when I arrived in New Orleans in 1988, and we became fast friends and played all the time. That was the genesis of the band, actually—not knowing it, of course, until a decade later, when we made our first recording. A year or so after I met Jon, in 1989 or 1990, Chris Thomas moved to New Orleans to attend the University of New Orleans, to study with Ellis Marsalis. So there was this trio core in New Orleans that was the beginning of the band.
You must have met Myron Walden after moving to New York in the ‘90s.
Yes. I met Myron at Manhattan School of Music. I was playing with Doug Weiss and Kevin Hays, and Myron was there.
It’s hard to think of too many other bands in which I’ve heard the excellent tenor saxophonist, Melvin Butler. His sound seems perfect for what you’re trying to do.
It is. Melvin’s tenor voice, and how he delivers melody and emotes the feeling, the essence of what I feel the music is… He’s just a gifted person. It’s in his heart and in his soul. He went to Berklee, and had relationships with Kurt Rosenwinkel and musicians in New York, like Debbie Dean and Seamus Blake, who were all at Berklee during that same period of time. I met Melvin through Betty Carter, when she hosted her first Jazz Ahead at BAM. At the time, Chris Thomas and Clarence Penn were in her band. Peter Martin, too. Melvin is a very studious man, very much on a mission. He’s a professor now. Ethnomusicology. He’s busy writing, but he’s got a dedication to the band, which I’m thankful for.
Do you hear the drumkit differently playing with Fellowship than with other people?
I don’t necessarily think it’s different. The vocabulary is all the same. Within each situation, I’m primarily trying to do the same thing—serve the moment, serve the song. Thankfully, I’ve been given that liberty in almost every situation I’ve been a part of. Sometimes I’m amazed. I’m back there, I’m looking at Wayne Shorter, and thinking, “God, this is what I do!” There he is, the very man himself. When you encounter your heroes, it becomes even deeper and greater to you in terms of your reverence and respect for them, and love, just as people.
Are you composing or thinking of the overall sound of the Fellowship Band from the drums? Or are you thinking in a similar way as you would as a sideman, reacting to the flow around you?
That’s interesting, because obviously, I have a connection with Jon Cowherd… Whatever Jon brings to the table musically, I know I’m going to—hopefully—give the right thing for it. Myself, after I’ve written something, I then have to leave the guitar and sit by the drums, and it’s really kind of new for me at that moment, as if I’m playing someone else’s music. Especially when it’s in the hands of the people in my band, all of a sudden it becomes alive to me. So I have to create a part for myself in the moment. I suppose I’m always doing that. Insofar as how it fleshes out in terms of the group dynamic, I think everyone is sensitive to finding their thread and fabric, so to speak. That’s what I’m always trying to do.
As a working drummer in live situations, you always have to play the room. One week you might be playing the Village Vanguard, after spending a month playing concert halls with Wayne Shorter.
True. I think a lot of it comes from my earlier experiences, firstly playing in church in Shreveport, and doing many, many gigs in ballrooms and hotels and lounges, all these different environments, different musics. That has informed my ability to adjust, to adapt to the environment quickly and say, “Okay, this is the sound,” and be able to fill it but not overwhelm it. It’s always a challenge. Every day is a different experience.
Can you speak to the band’s name, Fellowship?
I guess the big idea is what I hope to present with the music itself, this bond and this solidarity, not separatism or things that place boundary-lines between us. The music is perhaps not always easily defined, but I would call it our folk music, and it’s based on our relationships.
In a previous conversation, we spoke about the role of location being crucial to your broad conception of music—American heartland music. Shreveport is situated more or less equidistantly between the Delta, the Bayou, and the Ozarks, which is the confluence of a lot of streams, I suppose you absorbed a lot of them as a kid.
I suppose I did. Gospel, of course, being at the core of it. But then, I heard so much music. Chuck Rainey and the Neville Brothers, Asleep at the Wheel, this kind of cross-section of Soul and Country and roots music, as well as all the recordings I was trying to listen to. So yes, it is a curious place, right at that point in Louisiana.
Have your experiences with Wayne Shorter modified-morphed your views on presentation, or forms of tunes, or how you tell a story on the drums?
It’s definitely given me a greater degree of courage, to take chances. That’s what I love about Wayne. He’s such a master, such a genius composer, such a funny man. So for him not to rest on what he’s already established, absolutely the bedrock of this music, his unrivaled compositions… He’s still searching for new pathways and a different direction every night. So I try to do that myself. There is that unknown, which Wayne embraces wholeheartedly, and he’s brought us into that, like, “Okay, flashlights on—let’s adventure.” But then also, Wayne is always writing and bringing things in, and often, as a trio, Danilo and John and I will go through things at soundchecks. We may not get to them for a while. But Wayne is always planting seeds, and the growth comes slowly but surely.
The concerts give the impression of being 60 minutes of collective improvising, with occasional references to the tunes. How does it function? Are there cues? Is it just that you’ve been playing together for so long that you have that mutual intuition?
Right. After nine years, that unspoken language develops, just from that immeasurable amount of time together. But beginning from nothing, there are points at which someone might actually play something that we are familiar with. “Oh, I know that melody.” “Oh, do you want to play that?” “Okay.” You might agree, and everyone goes there, but sometimes four threads of thoughts are intertwining. So somehow, within all that variance, comes a singularity as well. Wayne loves that. He loves for you to make your choice and stick with it.
There’s a quality of real sound-painting, almost as though he’s seeing the sounds as colors and shapes as he’s creating them.
His imagination is so incredible, and you can hear it in his tone and his improvising. I think of it as always this cinematic view running. There’s also the symphonic aspect of everyone’s vision. It always seemed to exist in Wayne’s music, all the records I bought while I was in college, all of his Blue Note recordings, and later his Columbia recordings, and obviously Miles’ quintet with him, and also Weather Report. He always projects some other idea somehow, something bigger, something out of this world. Wayne is such a pictorial thinker, and he has such a cinematic, descriptive eye, and it’s great to feel like we’re part of that vision that can make his music. It’s perfect on paper. As far as I’m concerned, we just have to play what’s on the page and I would be so satisfied with that. But he wants to break out of that form almost immediately, before we even get to it, to create something that’s all of ours, so to speak. It’s been such a privilege with him to hear and just play one note, and what’s in that note is so profound and beautiful. But it’s also been great for me and for Danilo and for John to have played together for so many years now where we can walk out on the wire, so to speak, with no script, and improvise, compose together for the moment. It requires a great deal of trust, and also simultaneously, ambitiousness, and patience to put yourself in a vulnerable place, and hopefully have your instincts kick in and deliver the goods.
You mentioned how important the recordings that Wayne Shorter was on were to you as a young guy. Parenthetically, I once presented a track of yours to a veteran drummer in a Blindfold Test, and he mistook you for Tony Williams, which indicates your command of that vocabulary. Could you speak of the drummers you studied early on?
As to Wayne’s recordings, of course his Blue Note recordings with Elvin Jones, but I also initially tried to absorb Art Blakey as much as I could. Max Roach as well. Definitely Tony Williams. After I met Greg Hutchinson and Clarence Penn, they said, “Man, you need to check out Philly Joe Jones, you need to check out Papa Jo Jones.” So obviously every thread connects. Then you start to look at the progression. You can hear Papa Jo in Elvin. You can hear Art Blakey in Tony. Even Tony at 17, you’re talking about a fully formed genius. He set the bar so high, and you can hear that he absorbed the history of not only swing, but how to command a sound at the instrument. I guess I’m trying to do the same thing. Those are my pillars.
Were you an emulative drummer as a kid? What I mean is, would you try to play as much like Elvin Jones as you could, or as much like Art Blakey as you could, or as much like Tony Williams as you could, and then form your own conclusions out of that to become Brian Blade? Or was it more an osmosis thing?
Well, at home, in practice, I would try to. I did a little bit of transcription, but also less writing of it and just sitting at the drums and trying to learn how to execute these things that I liked. But when you’re playing in a situation with people, you make music in the now and not play something that you… It becomes a part of you, hopefully, and you can transmit it, but I know where it came from. I had so many opportunities to play all kinds of music. I was always listening to Steve Wonder, and Earth, Wind and Fire, or Todo! Again, these connections. Like, I’d hear Jeff Porcaro play a beat, and then later I would come to hear Bernard Purdie, and say, “Oh. Bernard Purdie!” I’d start to go deeper into the roots of where things come from. Sometimes when I listen back to things and hear myself, I think, “Wow, there’s New Orleans!” It’s always there, that pulse and memory of that place, my teachers and heroes there. It all has formed my way of playing music and seeing the world to a certain degree as well.
Did guitar precede the drums for you?
No. Violin did, however. But after, I guess, junior high, the line got blurry—I started playing snare drum in the sort of symphonic band. But for me, the guitar… I never had a great connection with the piano. So for me to be able to travel with this acoustic thing, and feel like, “oh, these little gifts are coming to me, and if I have 15 minutes somewhere as we travel along…” You never know. So I always like to keep it with me, and even if I get a fragment of an idea, who knows? It might develop quickly. But at least I was there to receive it.
Did any of the tunes on Season of Changes stem from guitar explorations?
Absolutely. “Rubylou’s” and “Stoner Hill”. The one song that I wrote at the piano is entitled “Alpha and Omega.” John and Myron do this amazing improvisation that precedes it, and then connects to that little piece of music. I’m proud of that one. I fancied myself in my room, the electricity had gone off, and I’m at my little piano, and Laura Nyro kind of came into the room a little bit in spirit!
When you played at the Village Vanguard with Fellowship last spring , the distinctive sound of Kurt Rosenwinkel was prominent within the mix. Jon Cowherd sat stage left at the piano, Rosenwinkel stood stage right, and, as I believe you mentioned at the time, their sounds comprised the pillars through which you navigated. Speak a bit about the band’s texture, the sound you’re hearing from the unit in your mind’s ear.
Obviously, Kurt’s brilliance and expressive power and eloquence comes from this core love of harmony. Also John, the same thing. This interweaving conversation is happening within every beat. They’re constructing these, I guess, monoliths! As a band, when it all comes together, the lines move in a linear way, but then also move in blocks, as these stacks. I often write that way. Not so much long lines, but more sung, shorter phrases perhaps. Jon and Kurt are able to make those two chordal instruments not collide with each other, but create a sort of fabric, and we all are able to stand on and jump from these posts.
Kurt Rosenwinkel was one of so many consequential musicians who developed their musical ideas at Smalls from the mid ‘90s on, as is well-documented. At that time, you played there regularly on Wednesday nights with Sam Yahel—the ambiance was more a straight-ahead, kicking drum thing, signifying on the approaches of some of the drummers you mentioned before. Can you talk about those years?
I miss it. To go down to Smalls with Sam and Peter Bernstein, for a while, every Wednesday, helped me. In our development as people, but specifically as musicians, you hit these plateaus, where you feel, “okay, I’ve been able to express these things, but I’m stuck there now.” So you have to place yourself in situations where you’re going to be challenged. With Sam and Peter, it was always a feeling, “wow, I have to raise the bar,” because they were really talking on a high level. It helped me so much. And it was fun. You’d walk out of there at six in the morning, and it was as if, “Okay, we had an experience tonight.”
But it seems that towards the latter ‘90s, leading up to Wayne, you started to move from “blowing” drumming to longer-form sorts of things. Now, this is a gross generalization, since everything goes on at the same time. But I’m wondering if there’s a kernel of truth to this observation.
I suppose so. I feel my writing became much more compact on Season of Changes—little 3-minute statements, very short sentiments. But we’re also able to balance that with, say, Jon’s writing, “Return of the Prodigal Son” or “Season of Changes,” that are much more of a trip, much more of a landscape through the mountains and valleys. I don’t know. It’s ever-changing. Maybe I’ve got another suite in me somewhere around the bend.
You mentioned that you started playing snare drum in junior high school.
I started playing drums when I was 13. My brother, Brady, who is five years older than me, was playing in church. At the time, he was leaving for college, so it just seemed it was my time to step into the seat in church once he left. It was an unconscious move, really. It just felt like, “Oh, that’s your duty.” “You want to play? Oh, great.”
You once mentioned to me that when you started playing drums in church, you were directly next to the chorus.
Yes. But particularly the organist—or piano, depending on which side and which church we were in. There’s been three locations of our church, Zion Baptist. We started in one part of Shreveport when I was very young, and for most of my life we were in a second location. Once I moved away to college, we moved to yet another location. So it was a different arrangement within each church, but very similar. The choir is always behind the pulpit, and the piano and organ are always behind the left and right, and the drums could have been on either side.
That’s a very dramatic context in which to play drums every week. Did those early experiences have a big impact on the way you think about playing drums now?
It is definitely the ground on which everything stands for me. Every situation which I’m a part of, that initial experience of serving the song, where it’s about praise and not some show or entertainment, but the rhetoric and being in worship service…I feel like every time I play, I’m in that place, even in an unconscious way. I think it gave me a certain focus to hopefully get out of the way! Obviously, there’s a lot of practice that we all have to do to get better at playing and expressing ourselves. But those lessons and that experience is where I come from, I think, in every other situation.
Can you speculate similarly on whatever impact your father’s sermons or rhetoric may have had on the way you express yourself and tell stories?
Yes. Actually, I’m writing a song for my dad right now, because we’re going to make a record for him later this year. I guess a lot of times, people don’t necessarily see Biblical stories as being connected to their lives. But my father had this great ability to break down parables. Often in church, when something speaks to people, they say, “Make it plain!” By “making it plain,” it’s like, “ok, I see what you’re saying; it’s real to me in this moment, in my life.” I’m trying to do that with songs. My dad definitely has inspired me and influenced me so much in trying to make it plain, these things that sometimes can be heavier thoughts or seemingly abstract.
Does the “Make it plain” notion have anything to do with the way you approach playing drums in the flow of things?
Perhaps it does. I remember my brother, when I was starting to play in church, would say, “It’s all about the train.” Keep the train moving. Just the simple thought of CHUG-CHUG-CHUG, seeing my role as being the train, so to speak, or the engine of the thing. Then you find yourself in that description. Ok, maybe the train is a colorful train. Maybe the train makes little stops on its route. So I try obviously to express myself, but at the same time not lose my sense of responsibility in a situation.
Eight years ago, you told me, “Jazz definitely is predominantly what I do play. I am not offended by the word ‘jazz.’”
Then you followed up with a remark that we get caught up too much in terminology.
I think so. Perhaps it’s so loose… I wouldn’t say it’s impossible to define what jazz is. But maybe it was something much clearer to folks when it was somewhat popular music, say, from the turn of the last century til as late as the ‘60s. You could look to Miles Davis or Louis Armstrong, and just say, “Ok, this is jazz.” But as things became much more combined and influences started to come together, those lines started to disappear as to clear definitions. But when I think about jazz, certain folks come to mind. Thelonious Monk. Duke Ellington. Or hopefully what the Fellowship Band is doing I would call jazz—but other elements and feelings come into our music as well.
Hopefully, what we provide for each other is this trust, the confidence to take chances. We don’t want to rely on what we played last night, or any automatic rote actions. We want to be in the moment as well, and surprise ourselves, and surprise each other, to have that mutual connection and know that everyone is completely submitting themselves to the whole idea. I think the audience feeds off of that. I’m not comparing us to the John Coltrane Quartet, but they are the example of what great group interplay is and the power that comes from that. Each individual is so virtuosic and delivering such emotional power on their instrument, but then there’s even something higher that we can reach together, something unseen, something that is a grace that’s been given.