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Meet Brian Blade

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This article was first published at All About Jazz in April 2000.

Musical background

I started playing when I was thirteen in church. My father was the pastor. My brother, Brady, who was five years older (he still is) was the drummer. He left for college so it became my duty to take over the drums. He didn't directly teach me to play. He was a great brother to me: he took me everywhere, and I saw him play all the time. I learned from watching him. Before I started playing drums I sang in the choir. I miss it a lot. It really instilled in me what you need to inject into a musical situation. Of course I didn't realize it until ten years later. As a teenager I listened to the music on the radio, and I played in all kinds of bands: punk bands, you name it. When I was about fifteen my teacher invited me to play in a band my brother had also played in. I left for New Orleans when I was seventeen to attend Loyola University where Johnny Vidacovich and Steve Masakowski were on the faculty. I met Jon Cowherd who's in the band. I majored in anthropology, but I was taking a lot of music courses. Just living in New Orleans is a major in music—there's a feeling that runs through the street.

New Orleans school of drummers

I lived in New Orleans seven years, and it kind of feels like home. There's a line of drummers I feel part of. People like John Vidacovich, James Black, many others. There's a groove that comes from the street culture. If you can play below sea level you've got it made! There's a certain feeling of the beat that finds its way in, whether it's traditional jazz, R & B, or whatever. Ed Blackwell was before my time, but he was a great example. You hear all these Africanisms in his drumming, a freedom and a complexity. Among other drummers Elvin Jones and Roy Haynes have also influenced me.

Marsalis family

Mr. [Ellis] Marsalis was my teacher, but what he did for me went far beyond teaching. I was one of the family. They took care of me when I was sick. I played in a trio with Mr. Marsalis and [bassist] Chris Thomas. Later on I played with [trombonist] Delfeayo. I got to know Wynton and Branford when they'd come in off the road. There's a younger son Jason [a drummer] who was already great then, and he's even better now. I try to keep in touch, but I don't see them as much as I'd like to.

Sideman in jazz bands

After college I played with Delfeayo and Kenny Garrett. I played and toured with Joshua Redman over a five-year period. There were several bands: first it was [pianist] Kevin Hays and [bassist] Christian McBride. Then [pianist] Brad Mehldau came in. Then [pianist] Peter Martin and Chris Thomas, and after that [guitarist] Peter Bernstein. We were able to grow together. I hope I'll always play with them.

Jazz vs. non-Jazz music

It's absolutely a continuum. With the church in me it's always about serving the song. I don't think I play differently at all. I'm always trying to find the most interesting thing that I can contribute to make the music reach out and touch—genre doesn't matter. I've played and toured with Joni Mitchell quite a bit, and she's probably my greatest influence musically. She's one of the greatest songwriters ever. There's a focus I learned from watching her and hearing her words. She tries to make direct contact even if it's Madison Square Garden.

The Brian Blade Fellowship

It happened over a five-year period. I'd talk and play with [pianist] Jon Cowherd. Jon and I started writing music, and we were joined by other people along the way: Melvin Butler and Myron Walden (saxophones), Dave Easley (steel guitar), first Jeff Parker then Kurt Rosenwinkel (guitar), Chris Thomas (bass), and Daniel Lanois (guitar). [Joni Mitchell also guests with the Fellowship on the new Blue Note CD Perceptual.] Attention to tone is a unifying element—how we touch our instruments. And we like to keep each other guessing.

Drums as a solo instrument

In a way I feel like I'm always soloing. I love my role in the band as a supporting player. When it comes time for the band to make music together I'm no longer the leader. We all respect each other, and we care deeply about the group sound. Sometimes the music calls for the drums to take a greater role. If not that's fine with me.

Influential writers

Besides Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro has been important to me the last couple of years. John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Kenny Wheeler, there's so many. Internationally I pick and choose. The Brazilians—I got stuck on Elis Regina. There's a woman Sankara from Mali. I love her.

Writing music

I write for our particular musical voices. I start working on a song by myself on guitar, but it doesn't really gel until I hear the band play it. That's when I get wrapped up in it emotionally. Writing feeds every other element of my music—my drumming gets better. Also it helps me to play other people's music. Writing is an abstract concept to me. I can't say ahead of time I'm going to do it. I have to be ready to feel the inspiration—say an experience is manifesting itself.

Writing lyrics

I usually start with a short lyrical idea or a short story based on something I've experienced. On our second record a song is meant to be glimpse into something. As artists I feel like we're obligated not only to give people joy from our music, but we're also social commentators. We try to make people aware of things. The image on the front of our CD [teenaged Native American girl, a picture taken in 1903 by Edward Curtis] has everything to do with what the music is about. She looks a lot like my mom when she was a girl. I feel she could be my sister. It makes me realize we're all connected in some way—our needs, our wants. I love that image so much, and it's a point of inspiration for me. The music does not deliberately have a Native American sound per se, but there may be an influence.

Big band drumming

I used to play in a big band in college but I haven't in a long time. (laughs) I've kind of got my own little version of it going with the Fellowship. I love playing with big bands.

Web page

brianblade.com. I have a little input. I tried to make the right choices. I just saw it for the first time yesterday. I don't have a computer—just a Remington typewriter. I'm a little behind times, but I want to try to get into it.

Upcoming projects

The Fellowship is going to Europe in April (Spain and Germany initially), then back to the states in May and June. We hope to have another tour in the fall. I played some gigs with Bill Frisell last year as well as some soundtracks with Daniel Lanois. I hope to do more this year.

Jazz Education

I'm kind of scattered—the way I travel I can't have regular students. I don't even know if I could teach. It would be good just to hear other people play. You know just play together with them. That's how I was taught. I was invited to participate in a music school in Denmark in 1998. It was a joy to be there for a week out in the country. So many gifted musicians. I don't know if they learned as much I learned. I kind of coached this particular combo. Teaching is a reciprocal thing—in a way it's just learning together. Ben Wolfe, Benny Green, and Wolfgang Muthspiel were some of the other instructors. We rotated as coaches and played a concert at the end. It was an excellent idea and very productive. I wish there was more of that happening.

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