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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.


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