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Brian Blade “I don’t want to be a rhythm without a story”

Text and  Photos Roberto Quintero

Brian Blade has a pleasing voice, soft in tone and rhythmically paced in conversation. He seems very comfortable with himself and, despite my usual skepticism I can’t help believing in the great inner peace he projects. Interestingly, the calm he transmits in conversation contrasts sharply with the energy and power of a thousand storms he unleashes when playing his drums on stage. It’s like he’s two different people, and the one that lays down the rhythm seems more like a force of nature. But whether he’s giving an interview or playing live, both personalities have one thing in common: they never stop smiling.

The musical force of nature that took shape when Blade was just a child, in the Baptist church where his father is still pastor, is now forty-four years old; he is considered one of the most influential jazz drummers in the world. It seems hard to believe that when he left his native Shreveport, Louisiana –the third largest city in the state¬– to attend Loyola University in New Orleans, his plan was to study communication and creative writing and go into ethnomusicology. “That was what I really wanted to do. I thought I’d be like Alan Lomax, traveling around the world, recording music and writing about it,” he says. But fate had other things in store for him. He enrolled in the university, but then became so immersed in the music scene in New Orleans (one America’s jazz capitals), studying and playing with greats like John Vidacovich, Ellis Marsalis, and Steve Masakowski, that he was finally forced to drop out of school and give himself up to the inescapable joy of making music.

In 1997, he became the leader of his first group, The Fellowship Band, which has released four albums to date including Landmarks (2014), which was nominated for a Grammy in the “Best Jazz Instrumental Album” category. Three years later, proving that he was destined to become a music legend, the great saxophonist Wayne Shorter –probably the greatest living jazz artist today– asked Blade to join his quartet along with pianist Danilo Pérez and bassist John Patitucci. Blade has been with the quartet for fourteen years.

But I’ll let him tell the rest of the story. This exclusive interview for Panorama of the Americas explores some of the milestones in the career of Brian Blade: composer, session musician, singer/songwriter, and one of the world’s most influential jazz drummers.

Let’s talk about Landmarks, your latest album with The Fellowship Band. What’s the concept behind the name and compositions you contributed to the album?

It’s a travel album, and it deals with the different parts of life one passes through. Like the opening song on “Down River,” in which we dive underwater to get to another place and then tell of our experience. I hope people will have their own experiences while listening to the songs.

You co-wrote the tunes on the album with Jon Cowherd, The Fellowship Band’s pianist and co-founder. How do you two work together? How do you develop individual ideas within a single musical concept?

I met Jon in 1988 at Loyola University in New Orleans and he was already composing at the time. I started writing in 1994 when I learned to play guitar thanks to my friend Daniel Lanois [Canadian musician and producer, who has collaborated several times with Blade]. The interesting thing is that when Jon and I are writing with The Fellowship in mind, thanks to our connection as friends, somehow the songs become stories. It’s as if we are writing two chapters of the same book, without knowing the other person’s plot or theme.

That same connection is present among all the band members when you are on stage. A musician friend wanted me to ask how you established that connection. I imagine it must have come about over time. You’ve been playing together for eighteen years now?

You’re right. The only way to achieve this connection is over time. The band formed in 1997, but that connection existed even before then. I met Jon nine years before forming the group and the following year I met Chris Thomas [bassist]. From that moment on, without knowing what would happen, this trio became the nucleus of what went on to become The Fellowship Band with the arrival of Myron Walden and Melvin Butler [both saxophonists]. The same thing happened in the Wayne Shorter Quartet. Although he had a vision of what could happen musically, it took some time for Danilo, John, and me to make the group sound like a single entity. Those signals we use to communicate with each other now, without speaking, came about thanks to all the time we spent getting to know each other. That’s why I want to believe that when people listen to The Fellowship Band they hear all those years of traveling together in a van, laughing, going on stage together, and supporting each other. It’s all in the sound.

Now that you mention it, let’s talk about Wayne Shorter, probably the greatest living jazz artist today. You’ve been part of his quartet with Danilo Pérez and John Patitucci for fourteen years. What have you learned from the experience?

Wayne is like a treasure in my life, a real blessing. To me, he’s the perfect example of those things that happen in life that you can’t predict. I remember when I was seventeen, finishing high school and starting to buy my first albums, and Wayne’s name was on all those important albums by Art Blakey and Miles Davis, the ones you had to have. I even remember buying JuJu, his first solo album for Blue Note. It was like he was everywhere; his compositions were speaking to me, I loved them and I wanted to know everything about him. I never imagined that when I got to be thirty I’d be in the same room with Wayne Shorter, talking and playing music!

That must be very difficult to understand…

It’s bizarre! It’s what I was telling you about… I find it so interesting, the line that unites us with the unknown [pause]. But, somehow, I was also preparing for what was coming. What I’ve learned over the years with Wayne, Danilo, and John is a greater sense of confidence. Especially from Wayne, who truly wants to compose and improvise in the moment, collectively. And that’s a challenge, you know? Starting from scratch, or as he would say “in zero gravity,” to create something together that can’t be seen at the time. You know what I mean? That’s one of the manifestations of Wayne Shorter’s genius and audacity, plus all those amazing songs he composed before that are all down on paper. But, even after all that time spent writing, night after night, he’s still looking for something more. It’s so stimulating to see someone reveal themselves to you as a genius. He’s a true hero to most musicians. But he doesn’t remain tied to his gift; he prefers to share his experience. And at eighty-two, he’s still taking risks, every night! I just hope that all musicians and artists, or anyone who really wants to create something, can learn from his example.

And what of the other great musicians you’ve played with: Herbie Hancock, Kenny Garrett, Chick Corea, Bob Dylan, and Joni Mitchell, to name just a few?

It’s been an honor to share with them. We’re talking about people who’ve made some of the most enduring music of the twentieth century. I mean, there’s so much music in the world, but every time I listen to “Gates of Eden” [Bob Dylan] I realize that time has spoken. It’s amazing how songs like these are a part of our lives, our history, and part of the collective unconscious. So just imagine! It’s amazing to have had the experience of playing these artists. It has enriched my life.

You, Danilo, and John also formed Children of the Light. Since you three are the foundation of the Wayne Shorter Quartet, what’s different when you play without him? 

There’s a big difference. Of course, Children of the Light takes its inspiration from our work with Wayne, and from all he taught us, but the project focuses on our own compositions and what we want to develop in our own way. It’s amazing to play as the Wayne Shorter Quartet and when we’re playing as Children of the Light we’re always thinking about him, he’s present in our hearts and minds. However, we’re trying to express something more personal, which is found only inside the three of us. Although we’ve achieved a great relationship as a quartet, there are still things to be achieved outside it. I don’t know how to explain it any better, but it has to do with finding your own form of expression.

In 2009, you released your first album as a singer/songwriter: Mama Rosa. What can you tell us about this facet of your career? I understand you’re still playing this album live, but are you writing more material as a singer/songwriter?

When I’m writing on the guitar, I never know if the song will have lyrics or whether it will be instrumental. It’s like a kind of river that I step into, never knowing if the song will end up being for The Fellowship Band or for Mama Rosa, the band that I named after the album. But, yes, I’m writing a lot of songs with lyrics. With any luck, I’ll record another Mama Rosa album this year. I’m working on it.

You’re 44 years-old and you are already considered one of the best jazz drummers in the world. How does it feel to have earned such a serious title when you’re so young and still have a lot to offer and develop? 

I don’t think much about it. I just want to keep feeling that inspiration and that spark that allows me to write and play with passion. I don’t ever want to become a guy with a mechanical relationship to the music. I don’t want to be a rhythm without a story. I’ve always wanted to have a story, a story to tell and share. I still feel that fire inside, and I want to continue to evolve as a composer and a drummer. I just want to stay on that track and continue to grow over the years.

You’re always smiling and laughing while playing. 

What are you feeling?

I really don’t know [laughs]. It’s such a joy when you feel the music flowing and you’re part of it. That positive energy is important for the world. I just fill myself with pride and courage inside it to keep from thinking negative thoughts. Of course, there are battles to fight, but doing what we do is one way of taking action to peacefully resolve these battles.

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