Jazz Talk

A Conversation With
Brian Blade
by Fred Jung

From high aloft a Los Angeles hotel, drummer Brian Blade and I had an opportunity to speak about his youth, his music, his interests, and his future. This is a no-holds-barred, unique look into one of the most exciting drummers in jazz today.

FJ: Growing up in Shreveport, Louisiana, you must have been exposed to an eclectic variety of musical styles. How did such diversity influence you? And what were some of the different forms of music you encountered?

BB: Beginning at the beginning, I was brought up in church, a Baptist church, so I heard gospel music, choirs, and people singing, surrounding me from within my mother’s belly. Growing up in that environment is fulfilling for me and it enriched my life. I remember being, somewhere before I hit double numbers, six, seven, maybe eight, I remember hearing Al Green for the first time. I have a distinct memory of that. I was sitting on my grandmother’s floor drawing and that sound was amazing. There’s a festival in my hometown, an annual festival called the Red River Revel, which had groups like Asleep at the Wheel, the Neville Brothers, and Chuck Rainey. I heard all this music, walking from stage to stage, so all of it got blended, so to speak. I’m so glad I came up in that town and I wouldn’t change it. I moved to New Orleans when I was seventeen, and that was another opening to a whole other world. That place just breathes rhythm and the music is constantly going there.

FJ: Being the son of a Baptist minister, you must have been instilled with certain values. How have those values been useful to your progression as a musician and as a man?

BB: The values are ultimately important. Hopefully there’s some core of right and wrong, a universal, ‘Okay, these things you do. You do right by people, and these things you don’t.’ I think it instilled simplicities in your moral code. With the birth of this group, hopefully it’s a part of wanting to convey a certain message. Hopefully there’s a circle that comes from someone listening and someone trying to tell a story. Hopefully you will all walk away with being touched by the experience, sharing something with other people.

FJ: Someone once told me that life was not fulfilling without sharing. Is sharing a pivotal part of your music?

BB: Absolutely. You are definitely not here alone. Not that you don’t have time where you are lonely or feeling longing. I think it is a natural instinct to want to bond with others. What is it worth if you can not share whatever it is that you may have with someone else? I think it’s important. Otherwise, I think your light starts to dim. It’s important that you have that mirror.

FJ: Did you play another instrument before the drums?

BB: I started playing violin in elementary school. I played up into junior high. I don’t know why I abandoned it. I think tennis took over my life around that time.

FJ: I played the violin. I know exactly why you abandoned it.

BB: (Laughing) It’s a hard instrument to play. I was in it when I was doing it, but I sort of got blurry there and I played tennis seriously through high school. I started playing drums in church when my brother, who was also a drummer, I suppose I was following in his footsteps. He’s five years older and he was playing in church. He left for college when I was around thirteen and I just sort of moved into the chair and started playing in church. It was a heck of a way to begin.

FJ: Do you still play tennis?

BB: No. Unfortunately. I would love to. I would love to be playing, but it would be more frustrating then (laughing). You need time. You have got to get out there everyday for six hours. I can’t even play the drums for that long. Something has to be sacrificed, I guess.

FJ: All children have dreams of being something, be it a teacher or a fireman, what did you want to be as a child?

BB: What did I want to be? I was a big fan of my pediatrician.

FJ: You have got to be kidding me.

BB: No, I’m not kidding. I wanted to be a pediatrician. I was like, ‘Man, this guy is great!’ He always wore a bow tie and he collected, funny that you mentioned fireman, because he collected fire engines. I had pneumatic fever when I was a kid, so he kind of saw me threw it. It went away once I came to a certain age where I didn’t need a pediatrician anymore.

FJ: What type of music did you listen to as a child?

BB: Definitely Miles and John Coltrane. Pat Metheny’s music. I was buying everything I could get my hands on. A friend introduced me to the Giant Steps album with Art Taylor, and I started buying all the records I could get my hands on. Keith Jarrett and Hank Mobley. Then again, I think the first record I ever bought was Off the Wall, Michael Jackson’s album. I forget how old I was. I started buying more jazz records when I was sixteen or seventeen, just before I left home. Sonny Rollins, there were just so many influences. I haven’t bought a bad jazz record yet.

FJ: What are you listening to now?

BB: Right now, I’m listening to a lot of field recordings actually. A lot of recordings that Alan Lomax made of prison songs and work songs. Compilations of things like that, a lot of blues singing.

FJ: Referring to your mention of John Coltrane, was Elvin Jones a significant influence? And who were some other drummers you admired?

BB: Elvin was a great influence, especially by the time I went to New Orleans. Actually, more so, the kind of three reasons why I moved to New Orleans, Steve Masakowski (guitarist for Astral Project, a New Orleans contemporary jazz band), Lou Huntington, and John Vidacovich (drummer for Astral Project). I think it’s important to hear the music live. To hear someone and see someone. So, when I saw them, I knew that I needed to be in New Orleans, which is why I went to school down there in Loyola (Loyola University New Orleans) because they were there. So through them, John Vidacovich told me, ‘You should check out this Ben Webster record. And hey, listen to this Paul Motian with Bill Evans.’ They are all great influences. Definitely, Elvin. For me, he’s probably my greatest influence, as a drummer, as a musician, as a man. What a force! Every time I hear him there’s something that goes beyond the subject of music. It maybe goes deeper into the center of what music is. Hopefully, I’d like to one day have had the experiences to build up and be able to tell those kinds of stories.

FJ: You have been working with Joshua Redman for quite some time now. How has he developed in your eyes? And how has your skills developed from playing with him?

BB: Ever since we started playing together I think, obviously, hopefully a grasp of musical concepts gets clearer, although, sometimes it gets foggier because you’re always trying to get to the next plateau, trying to understand more about your instrument. But, he’s definitely such a gifted improviser and writer, so it’s great to hear new arrangements and new perspectives being in the group. In a perfect world, it all sort of develops around the same time. Hopefully, we’re moving towards similar things together. Like, ‘Oh, I see where you’re coming from!’ And I think that’s happened with us. Hopefully, by trying to interpret music that he brings to the group, hopefully, I’m able to contribute the right things to it as the drummer in the band. It’s good have friends who we feel are making some important contributions to music.

FJ: Are you in a comfort zone when playing with Joshua and Christian McBride?

BB: Yes, even with the time apart, not playing together so much, and then we come, and we’re able to play together for a brief period. Yes, hopefully, you come back and you’re even more inspired because you’re like, ‘Oh man!’ Hopefully, we’re all growing still and hopefully that won’t stop and will have a fervor to play. So I think that’s definitely happened. We just did a trio tour, not too long ago and that was a joy. There wasn’t a lot of pressure, not that there ever is from my end of things, you know, because I’ve never made a record before or did anything like that, or dealt with companies. For me, and hopefully, it will always be just about trying to make great music and to share in the moment.

FJ: You also have done some work with Kenny Garrett, how has your musical collaboration been with him?

BB: Kenny, for the longest, I’ve known since the first time I came to New York. He’s such a huge influence, even before I met him, from recordings that I had of his. Unfortunately, I have not been able to play with him as much as I would have liked to in the last year, year and a half. But, hopefully, that will change soon.

FJ: What role does spirituality play in your life?

BB: It’s the most important thing. If you don’t have your soul and faith to cling to, then you are without a center. You’re on the edge, probably about to fall off. It is the pull from all directions. You are traveling so much, you’re in hotel rooms, and hopefully you have friends in these towns, and you can talk to folks and see how they’re coming along in life. Hopefully, you’re not, you don’t want to sink. These times alone you have to have something to cling to so I think it’s important to have faith, no matter what that may be.

FJ: Is touring lonely?

BB: Well, it can be at times. You do have the fraternity of your mates that you’re traveling with. Hopefully, you might have conversations with people after shows. Or like I said, have friends in the city that you may have visited before. It does get a little lonely, but that’s not a bad thing. Because of that time that you spend alone, not necessarily being lonely, but it is a time to reflect. It’s a time to slow the wheels down a bit, come to terms with your thoughts, and maybe write some music. Maybe go to a film or read a book that might reveal something or shed a little light on something you might have been confused about. It’s not bad. I’m enjoying it. I’m glad I am able to do it. You know, I have my health right now.

FJ: Are you on tour right now?

BB: Yes.

FJ: Who are you touring with?

BB: Joni Mitchell.

FJ: Has it been an enlightening experience for you?

BB: She’s just amazing. She, probably more then anyone, has been such a huge influence to me since we met as a friend. I’m so glad she’s doing this. It’s only seven dates, you know, with Van Morrison, sort of opening up for Bob Dylan. It’s been a joy just making music with her and all her company. It’s a privilege just being around her.

FJ: Is there a difference between playing in a stadium or arena to playing in jazz clubs? And if so, how has the transition has it been for you?

BB: For me, it’s not that big a difference. I suppose in number, in terms of attendance, playing at arenas as opposed to clubs. There’s a difference between a hundred people and eighteen thousand people. That’s the main difference I find. Other then that, hopefully you’re trying to touch people with your music. If that is what you’re doing. It is the same for me. I am trying to serve each song, no matter what the content is. Thankfully, I have been privileged to play with friends and people I believe in and want to be around me as well, as a musician and as a friend. It’s about relationships.

FJ: On your debut album Brian Blade Fellowship, you are using a larger ensemble rather then a smaller quartet or quintet. Did you prefer the sound the variety of instruments brought to your music?

BB: It’s just a natural gravity towards a sound that I feel an affinity towards. I get to hear these voices of my friends, Jon Cowherd, Chris Thomas, Jeff Parker, Dave Easley, Myron Walden, and Melvin Butler, they all complete a circle for me, in my heart, in my head. These songs that I start to write on the guitar, it’s really just me and the guitar on the page, which is boring. It means nothing until I get to hear it back through them. So it was only hindsight in a kind of review that I realized, ‘Wow! I am writing for these seven voices.’ This configuration. I’m so glad that it is becoming a reality, the group. I just hope we get to play.

FJ: So you wrote your compositions with the voices in mind?

BB: Yes, that’s what I did. I definitely knew that Jon and Chris would be on it. I knew we were going to begin in some way, and once Melvin and Myron, Dave and Jeff came into the picture, then it was clear where the music was coming from. Maybe not initially, I didn’t have the entire group in my head, but it’s funny how things develop in a somewhat parallel track. And thankfully those two things did, the people who deliver the music and the music that would be written for them, for us to deliver. It’s great, Jon’s writing and mine. Hopefully, my intention, hopefully, when you hear the record, you get a sense of a group, not just a guy with some guys. Hopefully, there’s a sense of a sound of seven people.

FJ: The majority of the album is your own music. Is it stimulating to play your own music?

BB: Definitely. It is so fulfilling. Like I said, when you’re writing things out, it’s kind of like, ‘I’m not sure.’ For me, I never know what the songs are until I hear them back. Then it’s like, ‘Wow! What a privilege to hear it.’ It’s great. It’s great to hear it played.

FJ: How important is it to you that you continually develop your own musical voice?

BB: I guess it is ultimately important, if I am going to continue to play. Hopefully, I don’t want to be a comparison. You can’t help comparisons. It’s part of who we are. You are always going to compare things to things, but hopefully it will continue to unfold and whatever individualism is there, hopefully will continue to grow.

FJ: You are compared to Billy Higgins quite often.

BB: Oh, absolutely. I will never not want people to say that because it is the truth. Absolutely.

FJ: On the other hand, you never hear someone say, ‘I hear a particular person in Billy Higgins’s playing.’

BB: Right. Exactly.

FJ: So that is a level of public perception you would like to achieve?

BB: I never really thought about it. I’m just hoping that those moments when people get to hear a recording or hear a live performance, hopefully they are taking in what they’re hearing and enjoying it. Being touched by it and that’s it. Hopefully, there’s no part of their critic that arises. Like, ‘Oh, this is bad.’ Hopefully, you are listening with an open slate. A clean slate.

FJ: Do you want audiences to consider your music to be telling a story, perhaps?

BB: I would hope so. The story will probably be different for everyone because everyone is different. I know what they meant for me at the time these sounds were born. I know what I felt when I wrote the songs. I try to put some of those feelings on the record. Hopefully, people can appreciate it and try to know and understand what a guy felt when he wrote these songs. What he felt and what experiences they came from. But, for them, obviously it will be different. They will experience something that is quite different from mine.

FJ: What story are you telling with the opening track, “Red River Revel?”

BB: Really, it’s just a warm memory. A childhood memory. It is like, in a way, an introduction to a festival of life. That Revel was such a great time in my town. I remember the feeling. Seeing the same people you knew and hearing all this new music. Seeing people painting and it was kind of my first experience with something like that, and you never experience something for the first time again. I was awakened.

FJ: Is it difficult to keep focused at this stage of your career?

BB: Yes and no. I’m not thinking ahead too much. Maybe it is sometimes to a fault. I find that I should live for right now, not blindly and not morbid, but just enjoying the time. When I’m playing, I’m playing. When I’m not, I’m not. I’m trying to focus on whatever part of life I’m going to. If I am keeping focus. I don’t know if I am or not.

FJ: So it is important to you to savor the moment?

BB: Absolutely.

FJ: When you are not playing, what other interests have captured your focus?

BB: Talking with people. Cafe time with friends, trying to catch up. Talk and laugh as much as possible. I don’t do much anymore except play music. I used to play tennis, but unfortunately I have abandoned it. I get frustrated more then actually playing the game if I were to play it nowadays. You want to be good. You don’t want to be bad at it.

FJ: You should try golf?

BB: I don’t know about golf, Fred. I love racket sports, but I should try golf.

FJ: Do you have any other future projects in mind?

BB: I would like to focus on playing with the band as much as possible. Joni’s record is coming out in September, called Taming the Tiger. Whenever she needs me or whenever she wants to play, I’m there. Other then that, I would like to play with the band.

FJ: Are you going to be touring with the Fellowship?

BB: We will begin sort of a northeastern tour next month. Playing up in New Jersey and New York City, at the Blue Note with Elvin Jones’s band.

FJ: Any West Coast dates?

BB: I hope so. If it were up to me, yes, quite a bit. I don’t know if anything will come up.

FJ: What would you like audiences to take away from your music?

BB: Joy. Hopefully, you walk away with a fullness. Hopefully, we’re all touched by something. Because when it’s right and it comes together as it should, there’s some unknown circle that is sort of completed. Hopefully, you walk away with a sense of that impossible thing that arises when people come together. That huge chunk of spirit that you can not manufacture, but you can grab in the moment and you surrender to it.

FJ: What other instrument do you feel an affinity towards? BB: Definitely, the guitar, because in a way I am only by myself. It would be interesting to play with some other people sometimes.