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Brian Blade: Songs From His Heart

R.J. DeLuke By

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I'm projecting what I feel and I'm telling a story and it's unfolding; people are receiving it. For me, as an artist, that's what I hope to do every time.
Brian BladeKnown in the jazz world for his slick and superlative drumming skills, Brian Blade is engaged in making other musical statements these days. Statements that are outside the jazz genre, but are an essential part of this enlightened man and serious musician whose musical tastes run "between Bela Bartok and Wayne Shorter to Al Green," who, he adds, all intermingle for him.

The Shreveport, Louisiana., native has contributed his considerable talents as a drummer for projects with Joshua Redman, Kenny Garrett and Bill Frisell. He can also be heard on recordings of Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Emmy Lou Harris and Seal. And he's a member of the Wayne Shorter for nine years and running.

On April 21, 2009, he releases a recording that is a departure from those associations. Mama Rosa (Verve) is a collection of personal and reflective songs Blade has written over the years in his solitary time.

The collection finds him largely putting down the drumsticks to sing and strum a guitar. Like a troubadour, of sorts.

It may be folk- and ballad-style music, but the stories are from his inspirations and experiences over the years. And one of those important inspirations was his grandmother, Mama Rosa, for whom the CD is named. It comes on the heels of his 2008 recording with his One Soul Fellowship, Season of Changes (Verve), a group he has led for about a decade.

The two recordings may seem worlds apart, but the compositions on the jazz album composed by Blade—"Ruby's Lullaby," "Stoner Hill," "Most Precious One," "Alpha and Omega"—are the most melodic and song-like of the entire recording. They are also reflective, uncluttered and not at all frantic—perhaps not as different from compositions on the new recording as one might expect.

"The songs from Season of Changes or the Fellowship Band music, and this Mama Rosa recording, run a parallel life, for me," says Blade. "Even though I'm not seen as a songwriter, composer, a singer of songs, it informs every part of my musical expression. I'm hoping people will find some joy in the songs and be able to relate some of it to their own lives. Or just enjoy it for the sake of music. I do feel the threads are intertwined.

"The difference with these songs from Mama Rosa is they had to stand up with just me and a guitar in my room, putting them down on tape. If I didn't feel like the song had strength—in that only—then there wasn't really a need to go forward. I've been privileged to be around my heroes, songwriters like Joni Mitchell or Emmy Lou Harris or Daniel Lanois, and to see how they go through the process and see how story lines unfold lyrically and musically. I feel like it's filtering through me. I need to get better at doing that, on every level of songwriting. Even if it is instrumental, it has to touch me first. That gives me the confidence to say, 'OK. Maybe let somebody else hear this one.'''

The songs weren't recorded with the intention of making a CD in mind.

"All of the songs I recorded in my room with my four-track recorder and it was a very private process. Satisfying, but solitary. My good friend (guitarist/songwriter/producer) Daniel Lanois, we've been playing for years together. He's been such a great inspiration for me to write, to have begun writing with the guitar. When I played some of these pieces for him, he gave me encouragement and confidence. He said, 'Man, you should try and make a record out of these things.' And that's what I did, with his help and quite a few other friends. All of a sudden it became much more social, which is great. You feel like you're not alone in it."

Brian BladeBlade sings in a soft, yet soulful voice. His straight-to-the story approach is without the maneuverings of jazz singers. His tone is warm and serene and he tells the stories in heartfelt fashion. Blade's vision is one of wide, diverse musical tastes where jazz isn't necessarily at the forefront and influences creep in from various corners of the musical world.

Says Blade, "I don't want people to get the wrong idea. Not that I like to label anything. But it definitely isn't a jazz record. But it is a record of music that people can enjoy."

"After the Revival" speaks of the warmth of family, enveloped in the tale of his mother expecting the birth of her first son, Brady. "Faithful Brother," a tribute to his sibling, recalls the early guidance Blade's brother provided and reflects on facing challenges without it.

"At the Center Line" begins with the famed "Serenity Prayer" ("God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.") which Blade first read in a frame hanging on his Moma Rosa's wall. It develops into a compelling anthem about staying centered and meeting challenges of life, driven by some simple, but searing guitar work from Lanois.

Eleven of the 13 cuts are songs sung by Blade. They reflect his religious upbringing (his father is pastor of a church in Shreveport), his experiences, and his vision that all people should get along in this difficult world. He's helped out by various artists like Lanois, and some members of the Fellowship Band, like pianist Jon Cowherd and bassist Chris Thomas.

He says when a song starts to come to him, he doesn't question where it might be headed; he'll get his recorder cranked up and not worry about what to label it.

"The Fellowship music is often written—it may begin with a word or a line or phrase, and then live in an instrumental world with all of the Fellowship band mates in mind. These songs that are on the Mama Rosa recording were those songs that became fully formed, lyrical ideas and stories that are about my life and family, growing up in Shreveport, home."

"It's been very solitary," he says. "Living in my room. It's an interesting place to be, letting go of these diary entries, so to speak. When songs live in an instrumental world, I don't think they're any less personal. But the moment that words get attached to a piece of music, it starts to tell the story in a different way. I'm just trying to move forward with doing that, in terms of serving the song, no matter what the song will be. It just turns out that this batch was songs I've been writing since the beginning of my starting to play guitar and compose for the Fellowship band. These songs were always running parallel in the solitude of my room. It's great to get to the point where I feel I have to let them go in order to move on.

"I started to feel like in order to be honest with myself, I have to reveal more of who I am," he says. "This is a part of that process."

Brian BladeGoing from supporting jazz music and musicians from his seat behind the trap set to stepping out front and singing is something that is not very common. It's a big step and a sizable deviation. But Blade doesn't view it that way, and in doing so, seems to have a solid comfort level about performing the music live.

"I really respect solo artists and the ability of one person to walk out and deliver something powerful, like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell or Blind Willie Johnson; I try not to think of it as me being out front so much as shifting my position to another part of the band dynamic. Once we begin playing more of this music live, I'm really excited about seeing how it will reveal itself to me. Because essentially I still have to deliver something that's real to me, and for the situation, with as much clarity and spirit as possible.

"I look forward to what people will get from the music. We'll see," he says with a soft laugh. "It's so out of my hands at this point. Once you're writing stories or making art—something that's so personal—and then reveal those things, there is vulnerability. It can be scary. But, hey, it's a trip anyway, right? You gotta take it and have faith that you've done your best."

"I think about my dad a lot, because he's a pastor for 47 years. When he was a young man in his early teens, he and my grandmother Julia...he would have to make stories, these parables, plain to her in the living room before he would go before a congregation of people to try and tell a story. I feel like I'm getting closer to becoming the kind of man my father is. I have such great respect for people who can do something for so long that requires them to do that. You're a part of other people's lives. These songs, hopefully, strike out across people's experiences as well; some resonance in other lives as well. We'll see. Time will tell when it comes to that."

Blade has been touring with Chick Corea's Five Peace Band, but has performed the Mama Rosa material in Shreveport and parts of Texas. "It's been great. Hopefully, they come to hear music and they come with no preconception of, 'Here's a drummer who's singing songs now.' But more, 'so, here's a songwriter singing songs.' Take it from there, rather than seeing me in a different position.

"It's quite an adjustment, to walk out on stage. I wouldn't say I'm nervous anymore because I've done quite a bit. But there is that anxiousness and the desire to be in the moment and hopefully feel strength in that instant. I'm projecting what I feel and I'm telling a story and it's unfolding; people are receiving it. For me, as an artist, that's what I hope to do every time. It's great to have the opportunity to share songs with other people."

Meanwhile, his jazz chops are getting a workout with Corea's latest smoking band. "It's going great. It's been a blast. My heroes, Chick and John McLaughlin, and to reconnect with Kenny Garrett and Christian McBride. It's been a blast."

Blade's resume is full of associations with jazz elite like Shorter, Corea and Herbie Hancock.

"It's such an honor. Not even from a historical point of view, because they are some of the foremost inventors of the music. It perpetually modern, what Chick has done throughout his career, and John McLaughlin and Kenny Garrett and Christian as well. There are generational differences, but that aside, there's a connection to the music that the music demands. It's respect and knowing how it has evolved."

Earlier this year, he completed a European tour with Shorter's group, and after Five Peace, he's going back for more with Shorter. In between, he's still doing gigs with the Fellowship Band and trying to get chances to perform his newest music.

He's learned something from working with and being around all the jazz greats—"my heroes"—and takes nothing for granted. Being around Shorter, for example, continues to provide inspiration.

Brian Blade / The Fellowship Band"It's been about nine years now since I've been playing with the quartet. He's inspiring as a man who values life itself and the experience. The dynamic that has grown as we travel around the world together, figuring out a feeling, the power behind the notes. It's not just the notes and a bunch of cerebral spillings. Our hearts are wrapped up in this stuff. We're trying to emote something that's real to us and urgent, as life is," says Blade.

"Every night I walk out on the stage and there (Shorter) is, and he's just ascending, man. Never resting on what he played 30 years ago. Or last night, even. He's trying to find a new doorway every night. He calls it 'turning on the flashlight.' It's a search through however dark it might be. It's great."

Another hero is Joni Mitchell, whom he has toured with, as well as recorded. "I want to try and get her back out there (touring), because we need her. We need to hear her. It was a joy to be out there on the road with her. She's still one of my greatest inspirations."

Other inspirations include the music of John Coltrane. "I go through phases where I don't listen to his music or Joni's music—maybe a year goes by or six months—but then I hear something on the radio or I revisit a record and it just gets deeper. When you come back to it, wow. That's the reason why this has become such a part of me, I feel like. It keeps revealing more and more. It gets deeper and deeper the more you stick around and are able to experience it."

"Aside from our economic struggles, trying to make a living and all that, it's such a deep privilege to know I'm doing what I love to do. All the compromises that I have to make are being away from home, being on the road. But I accepted that. I didn't realize it until a decade had gone by. But I said, 'OK, this is my life. I'm a transient.' But it's great," says the drummer.

Blade, who still lives in Louisiana, though he lived north of New York City for a number of years, didn't start on drums as a youngster. He played the violin in the public school system and participated in the orchestra program. His older brother, Brady Jr., played drums. "I kind of followed him down that path. We both started playing drums in church. In the early '80s, I was taking in all these influences. Stevie Wonder. Earth Wind & Fire. Later, when I was able to discover Art Taylor, Billy Higgins, Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, I paid the same attention to the recordings they made as I did to Jeff Porcaro and Toto," he recalls with a chuckle.

After high school, he moved to New Orleans and Loyola University, and studied with John Vidacovich, who is still an inspiration and is mentioned in the Mama Rosa cut "Second Home." So, influences came from the church, classical music, R&B and pop during his formative years, as well as discovering jazz in high school. The first exposure to jazz came through playing big band charts as a freshman in the school system.

"That was trial by fire, because I didn't have a clue," he says. "I started reading music when I started playing on a practice pad, rudiments and exercises. But all of a sudden to have this drum chart in front of me—Horace Silver or whatever we were playing at that time—it was really a challenge. Then I started to realize I needed to listen to these kinds of records. Duke Ellington, the Count Basie band. Mel Lewis and Thad Jones. Trying to take in as much as I could that would help me to get better."

It worked, and Blade's talent emerged on drums. In New Orleans, he also got tutelage from Ellis Marsalis and Herlin Riley. He started doing gigs with a band run by one of his teachers. "It was a great experience. Immeasurable, because they were so professional. He had played with Ray Charles in the past. He'd always tell me, 'You need to get this record. Check out this Miles Davis record.' Not just telling, but also doing, to have that experience. Playing weddings, playing functions, making music with them. It was a real gift and challenge. It started me out."

His segue into jazz as a career "sort of rolled by me."

"I was sort of on that train before I woke up," he laughs. "It was something I was already passionate about—playing music. But I never envisioned this point that I've arrived at now. To have a band and be playing with my heroes, Wayne Shorter and Chick and Herbie. It's tremendous. The blessing of it—it just keeps coming. Hopefully, I'm prepared, when the opportunity comes, to give what's needed to the situation and raise it up a bit."

Brian BladeHe didn't give moving to New York City a lot of thought.

"I thought I'd never leave New Orleans," he says. "I was playing a lot with Ellis Marsalis. I met Joshua Redman and Kenny Garrett around the same time. I guess I felt like I needed a change at a certain point. That provoked my move to New York. It was never a feeling of necessity to go there.

"Looking back on it, I'm thankful that I had all those experiences. I met Sam Yahel and Peter Bernstein, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Myron Walden, by going there. It threw me into a whole other community of folks that I may not have met. That's still the thing that brings musicians to New York—to be a part of that community. To go to the Vanguard and hear Art Taylor and Ed Blackwell, as I did during my first visits there. That's just priceless."

name started to get around more when he started recording as a sideman. "Some of my first recordings were with Kenny Garrett, his Black Hope recording (Warner Bros., 1992). I started touring a lot with him and with Joshua Redman as well. But (a big break was) also from having met Daniel Lanois when I was in New Orleans. By the time his second record had come out, For the Beauty of Wynona (Warner Bros., 1993), we were touring a lot. Maybe that all contributed to people hearing me and becoming known as a drummer."

It's progressed since then and Blade is regarded as one of the finest drummers today. It's been a good ride.

"Oh, yeah," he avows with a laugh. "A rollercoaster, and one that I love. It's great. I can't say there's been downs to the ride. It's all been an uphill journey. Really a joy to have the invitations come. I know there are so many gifted musicians who don't get opportunities, who are deserving. I don't take that for granted. I'm trying to keep my spirits high so that the music, in the end, throws as much joy out into the world as possible. There's enough of the other stuff to keep us busy."

So 2009 will be a busy one for Blade, with his various musical associations, his own jazz band and now this new direction.

Of his new music, and his singing, Blade says "I say that I hope people enjoy the music. But essentially I'm trying to do this to satisfy myself and the Maker, so it's kind of like: If you like it, great. If not, there's a lot of other music to be heard in the world. I'm not going to stop trying to write and I won't know what the song will be until it's done. So I won't be able to say this is a song sung with words, or this is for the Fellowship Band. I just stay in the process until it becomes what it's going to be. Then I step back and look at it with some objectivity."

He adds, "With this Mama Rosa recording, they're chapters in the book for me. This is this chapter. The next chapter? It's not written yet. We'll have to see what that's going to be."

Selected Discography:

Brian Blade, Mama Rosa (Verve, 2009)
Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band, Season of Changes (Verve, 2008)
Joni Mitchell, Shine (Hear Music, 2007)
Kenny Werner, Beyond the Wall (Blue Note, 2007)
Kenny Garrett, Beyond the Wall (Nonesuch, 2006)
Joshua Redman's Elastic Band, Momentum (Nonesuch, 2005)
Wayne Shorter, Alegria (Verve, 2003)
John Patitucci, Songs, Stories and Spirituals (Concord, 2003)
Wayne Shorter, Footprints Live! (Verve, 2002)
Herbie Hancock, Directions in Music: Live at Massey Halll (Verve, 2002)
Chris Potter, Gratitude (Verve, 2001)
Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band, Perceptual (Blue Note, 2000)
Joshua Redman, Freedom in the Groove (Warner Bros., 1999)
Brian Blade, Brian Blade Fellowship (Blue Note, 1998)
Bob Dylan, Time Out of Mind (Columbia, 1997)
Emmy Lou Harris, Wrecking Ball (Asylum, 1995)

Photo Credit

Top Two Photos: Megan Holmes

Bottom Photo: Tomoaki Makino

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