By James Halecopyright © 1999 James Hale
Old jazz hands are frequently heard to mourn the passing of the rugged individualist in the music. Where, they say, is this generation's Eric Dolphy, Andrew Hill or Tony Williams? One answer is that today's Dolphy, Hill or Williams might not be where you expect.
A case in point: 28-year-old Louisiana native Brian Blade. Best known by jazz fans for his three years behind the drum kit with saxophone phenom Joshua Redman, Blade is just as likely to be found on the road with Joni Mitchell or in the studio with Seal. The latter situation is exactly where I caught up with him in Los Angeles.
Musical eclecticism comes naturally to the soft-spoken son of a minister and a kindergarten teacher.
"Initially, I grew up listening to sacred music. Choirs, a lot of gospel music. I remember listening to Al Green at my grandmother's, and my father is a wonderful singer, too. That music was so central to my family's situation that I was certainly exposed to it even before I was born. There was also the great music that was on the radio - Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson. I was wide open to all kinds of music in my hometown of Shreveport. I'd go see the Neville Brothers or Asleep At The Wheel, various local bands, too. You could kind of see the world in our little town."
Violin was his instrument of choice in his school orchestra, though drums always held a special attraction.
"My older brother, Brady Jr., played the drums in my father's church, and when he went away to college I just naturally stepped up to the chair. I was 12 or 13 and it was an unconscious thing, really. I was just trying to be a part of this very vibrant thing in the church, so I wasn't terribly involved in the technicality of playing the instrument."
Jazz entered the picture a few years later, just as Brian himself was about to make the transition from Shreveport to Loyola University in New Orleans.
"A friend told me about John Coltrane's Giant Steps and Miles Davis' Live At The Plugged Nickel, so that sort of put me in the deep end of interpretation immediately."
His drum influences ran the gamut from Elvin Jones to Levon Helm of The Band.
At Loyola, Blade became friends with a number of musicians who have figured prominently in his life for the past decade, including pianist Jon Cowherd, bassist Christopher Thomas, guitarist-producer Daniel Lanois and saxophonists Victor Goines, Kenny Garrett and Joshua Redman. Goines, Garrett and Redman provided Blade his first recording opportunities, while Lanois introduced him to an entirely different world.
After touring with the Canadian-born Lanois in support of his album, For The Beauty Of Wynona, Blade became his drummer of choice, putting him behind the kit for Bob Dylan's critically acclaimed Time Out Of Mind and Emmylou Harris' Wrecking Ball.
When the time came for Blade to step forward to make his own musical statement - 1998's Brian Blade Fellowship - Lanois was the not-so-obvious obvious choice. Old friends Cowherd and Thomas formed the nucleus of the band, joined by saxophonists Melvin Butler and Myron Walden, and guitarists Jeff Parker and Dave Easley. With Lanois - the man who has shaped the sound of such diverse artists as U2 and Willie Nelson - behind the board and original compositions influenced by such varied experiences as visiting the house where Anne Frank sheltered from the Holocaust, hearing a field recording of Pygmies, and mourning a dead friend, Brian Blade Fellowship was bound to be something different.
"I had absolute freedom from all the folks at Blue Note Records. They were very supportive of what we wanted to achieve. I think they realize that touching someone with your music is the bottom line. And working with Daniel was great. I wanted him there for his perspective and his sense of direction, which is a great gift that he has. It's terrific to have someone whose judgment you trust completely."
Though Lanois puts in appearances on two songs, the recording has few of the sonic qualities that have become his signature in the rock and pop world. Ironically, several influential jazz critics chided Blade for the album's lack of a touch, muscular edge.
The drummer stands by his musical vision, one that is uniquely his own and intensely spiritual.
"I want to create landscapes. I have to be true to what I hear. The strike of the cymbal is almost mystical to me. I'm almost the anti-drummer in a way. I cling to the harmony and melody or the words of a song so much that it's almost like I'm not playing drums."
Likely, it's that ability to become one with a piece of music that makes Blade so in demand by artists from various genres.
"I like to step into a recording or performance with no pre-conception and just play totally in the moment. With Dylan, I had no idea what to expect. Working with Seal, I want to get so close to the meaning of his songs, get right inside the lyrics. With Joni, it's just a dance, you know."
While his reputation, chops and positive attitude could probably make him the Steve Gadd or Jeff Porcaro of his generation, Blade doesn't intend to lose the career momentum built up by his debut recording.
"It's a difficult balance," he concedes. "There is a financial strain of taking a septet on the road, but the guys in Fellowship are the voices that are the songs. We did three nights at Birdland in New York during the winter and we'll play a few dates again in June, but it would be great to play a consistent string of dates somewhere. I don't really care where we play - I don't think it would have to necessarily be a jazz club - just so long as we can play this music for some people somewhere."