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Wil Blades: Groooooovin'

R.J. DeLuke By

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"I love the blues," says Wil Blades, a Hammond B3 whiz who didn't come to the instrument until he left his hometown of Chicago and was going to college in California. He doesn't remember specific instances of being struck by a blues thunderbolt, but "I remember hearing it. It's part of the feeling I get when I play music."

He started on drums at a young age and turned to guitar as a teenager—"I had those rock star aspirations when I was in middle school," the easy going Blades quipped—but when he started fooling with the B3, he slowly rolled into a very strong player with a natural sense of the instrument and its ability to groove. He's a natural and his music, which he has fit into a wide variety of musical situations, has both a sophisticated and funky feel. The 35-year-old whose acclaim has steadily grown on the organ has plied his trade with the likes of John Lee Hooker, Melvin Sparks, Idris Muhammad, Don Braden, Donald Harrison, Nicholas Payton, Charlie Hunter and others.

"I think I heard the blues growing up" in Chicago, he says. "You hear it there. My dad is a writer and my mom is an artist, so they're very supportive of creative things. They would take me to shows. I had older brothers that would take me to shows. My brother took me to see Elvin Jones when I was 10."

Not everything he plays is jazz. Not everything he plays is funk. Blades is a diverse player who enjoys the improvisation aspects and the freedom of exploring, which he often does in duo settings.

"I love to groove. Whether it's a looser groove or a tight groove, I love rhythm," he says. "Growing up as a drummer really informed where I come from. Especially my organ playing. If I hadn't played drums, I wouldn't be playing organ right now. I love the rhythmic aspect of the organ and I love to improvise."

That's blissfully obvious on Blades latest album, Field Notes, with guitarist Jeff Parker and bassist Simon Lott. It's a natural, organic sounding, infectious record. Great sound, natural interaction among the players. Devoid of grandstanding and full of musicality.

"The title of the record comes from the fact that most of the tunes were borne of different snippets I had on my iPhone. [From] sound checks. Rehearsals. Me just practicing at home. One of the songs was an improvisation that Billy Martin [of Medeski, Martin and Wood] did on a gig. It stuck and we played it on gigs. After the first time it happened, it became a song. That's where the concept is, tying all these snippets together."

One of the songs, "I Can't Stand a Whole Lot of You," has its origins in about four or five snippets; stuff he might have done while practicing. He'd find them catchy, and write them down or record them for possible later use. Those "field notes" are the essence of the compositions, all but one on the album by Blades.

Blades says of the recording, "I kept my ego out of this one as much as I could. More so than previous records. When I say that, it's not like I'm putting my ego on other people, more of inflicting my ego on myself. Having certain expectations of how I want the music to be. I just let this one happen. I didn't really tell them how to play. We just played the tunes and I let them play the tunes how they wanted to play them... For me, it feels good to let it be and live with the result. I feel like the record does what I want it to do overall. It feels good. I was actually more focused on melody this time. In general, that's a thing I've been working on in my playing and in my soloing. Having more of a sense of melody and I feel like, at least to a degree, I've achieved some of that with Field Notes."

Blades has been playing with Parker for about a decade. "We have great rapport and I've always loved playing with him for many reasons. He's played with many of the great organ players. He was in Charles Earland's band when he was in Chicago. He is in Joey DeFrancesco's band right now. Organ players love Jeff. He has a perfect balance to the organ sound. For me, what's really great about him is that he has a very diverse interest in music. Not only listening, but playing. As do I, so we're able to go different places, or at least acknowledge the different places and not be closed off to different possibilities. At the same time, he's got real firm roots in jazz and blues. It informs his playing."

Lott is from New Orleans and has played with Blades in different settings, including duets. "He's got real firm roots in jazz and New Orleans music, but he's also got a wide palette of interests and stuff he does musically. He's very open, but there's a sense of history and depth to his playing," says Blades.

In thinking abut the record, Blades felt Parker and Lott would be a good blend, even thought the two had never met before. "It was pretty amazing," he adds. "A lot of great musicians can get together and play, but the chemistry is the biggest factor that makes good musicians playing together either work or not. If the chemistry isn't there, it's not going to work. Right off the bat, from the first tune we had a really great chemistry. We played two gigs, had a day off when we rehearsed, then did the recording session. Then finished the tour after that. So we really only had a few days of playing together before we made the record. It was pretty much material that was completely new to both of them."

The trio is doing a small west coast fall tour and should be hitting the Midwest in December. In between, Blades and Lott will be playing in Japan with local musicians.

"I don't know that someone who's a straight ahead jazz fan would consider this a jazz record, and I don't know that someone who's a hard core funk person would consider it a funk record," says the organist. "It's somewhere in that gray area. Which I kind of like. It's all that stuff. It doesn't feel like we're trying to do that. It's just the way we play."

Blades heard jazz at home, but had diverse interests as a drummer, and later as a young guitarist.

"I started playing guitar and got into Pink Floyd, the Doors, Santana and all these classic rock bands. A lot of them had organ, so that sound started to catch my ear. The more I explored that, I found out abut Jimmy Smith. Around that same time, Medeski Martin & Wood hit the scene and became very popular. They had all these contemporary influences. I could hear these threads between stuff that I was listening to that was modern and contemporary, and jazz. That opened a lot of doors into exploring jazz's past. Listening to Jimmy McGriff and Richard "Groove" Holmes. Wayne Shorter and Duke Ellington. Because [MMW] were playing Duke Ellington songs. They were playing Wayne Shorter songs. But with this new modern twist. It showed me the door into jazz history and I got more heavily into jazz as a result."

Once his interest in the organ grew, he jokes that pursuing was then inevitable. "There's this small group of us that get obsessed with the Hammond. People that get into the Hammond are obsessed. I know all these obsessive people. They just love the organ."

Blades started with a smaller Hammond M3, "is a baby version of the B3," and began to figure out songs on it. He moved to the Oakland area and began studying music at New College of California with bassist Herbie Lewis. He was still juggling drums, guitar and organ.

"Herbie got really frustrated with that and made me pick an instrument. I decided I was going to play organ. It seemed the most appealing. I don't know why," he says playfully. "It was the one that was calling my name." A gig at the Boom Boom Room in Oakland forced him into a situation playing a B3 that was there in a trio with guitar and bass. "So I had to get up there every week and embarrass myself in front of an audience. But that helped me get my stuff together way quicker than I would if I was practicing at home. Because I had a goal."

Gigs were also plentiful in San Francisco, with a greater need for organ players than guitarists. "So as soon as I could play a little bit, I started getting all these gigs. Blues gigs. I started playing with bands that would come through the Boom Boom Room and would hire me as the organ player. I got another gig with this band called Oscar Meyer's Blues Beat... Through that, I started getting other gigs on organ. I got more serious about playing jazz, taking gigs playing jazz music on organ. It blossomed from there. So I was playing all the time. From the time I was about 19 or 20."

Oscar Meyer's Blues Beat backed up John Lee Hooker once as the blues icon was traveling through towns, playing with hot local musicians. Blades never actually met the man. "I was too young and too scared to introduce myself to him. I just played the gig with him. Kept quiet. I was 20 at the time and too scared to talk to him."

The shyness wore off. When one of his other heroes, organ master Dr. Lonnie Smith came through town, Blades and a friend started talking to him. "I ended up going back every night and developing a relationship with him. The same with Melvin Sparks and Idris Muhammad. I just went up to them and started talking to them. Melvin heard me play, opening for his band when he would come through town. He eventually hired me for some stuff. Idris, I met and he decided then and there: 'Hey, man. I like you. We'll play.' He never heard me play or anything. He liked my vibe and he liked that I was nice. He ended up coming and playing at the Boom Boom Room.

Guitarist Will Bernard was another important person who hired Blades. He gained good experience (and maintains a relationship today) and went out on the road with Bernard. The guitarist also introduced Blades to other folks, "like Stanton Moore, a New Orleans drummer. I toured in his trio a lot. I think I got that gig because of Will... Will Bernard, Scott Amendola and I had trio for awhile. I got a lot of experience playing with older musicians. Musicians who were much better than me. That helped me develop a lot quicker than I would have."
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