Like many musicians, Brian Blade prefers to think outside of genres — he's a jazz drummer who loves pop songs. You can hear the deep jazz structure in Blade's compositions for his quintet, The Fellowship Band, and you can hear how such '70s singer-songwriters as Joni Mitchell have influenced his writing. As a jazz player, Blade has worked with Wayne Shorter and Brad Mehldau. As a pop-song adept, he's added drums to recordings by Mitchell, Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle. Blade is a formidable player, and a compelling composer.
Born in 1970 in Shreveport, La., Blade moved to New Orleans in the late '80s. In the Crescent City, he studied with such jazz-scene luminaries as Harold Battiste and drummer Johnny Vidacovich. Playing in varied musical situations in New Orleans allowed Blade to master both a repertoire and an approach to playing. Although he received a first-rate musical education in New Orleans, he now lives in Shreveport.
"It was an inseparable part of life," Blade says of the New Orleans jazz scene. "It wasn't something removed from daily existence. When you have that kind of communal regard and inclusion with the music, then there's no surprise that such fruitful and gifted musicians come from a place. ... I remember playing at the Maison Bourbon with Ed Frank and Leroy Jones, and this was a traditional jazz gig, so it was a traditional New Orleans repertoire that they all grew up with and knew very well, and none of which I really knew. But I was up there onstage, no rehearsal, and all of a sudden, I hear a foot stompin' off the song, and we're in."
Blade would go on to play with Shorter, contributing fleet rhythms to the 2003 full-length Alegría. One of jazz's greatest composers, Shorter has always specialized in eerie melodies and abstract rhythmic strategies. Blade's music with The Fellowship Band reflects Shorter's influence, but their 2008 full-length Season of Changes was a combination of fusion jazz and pop song form.
"The Fellowship Band was born from my relationship with [pianist] John Cowherd, and John contributes the other body of work that we perform," Blade says. "He composes half of the work, and when we meet in the middle, it seems to just coexist."
Over the past decade, The Fellowship Band has changed — Cowherd and saxophonists Myron Walden and Melvin Butler have continued to play with Blade, as has drummer Chris Thomas. Season of Changes featured guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, while earlier records were colored by Dave Easley's pedal steel. Such Season tunes as "Return of the Prodigal Son" owe a debt to the '60s jazz of Shorter and to Shorter's onetime employer, Miles Davis.
As Blade says, "Essentially, we're a jazz band in that we have this improvisational liberty within a song. But there's also this regard we have for the song itself, the melodic content and harmonic structure. It's hard to describe it — it's an instrumental band."
That's a good description of music that transcends genre. Blade obviously likes words, too — he played on Emmylou Harris' 1995 Wrecking Ball. And as I say, he really digs Joni Mitchell. Blade tells the Scene about his upcoming full-length with The Fellowship Band, Landmarks, which is set for release late this summer. We talk about Mitchell, and Blade mentions her 1975 jazz-pop record The Hissing of Summer Lawns.
"Speaking of Hissing," Blade says, "take 'The Jungle Line,' where she incorporated the Drummers of Burundi and wrote a song out of all that thunder. That in itself speaks outside of genre. It speaks to a holistic, world view of music."
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