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Fellowship Band leader Brian Blade on playing with Joni Mitchell, Wayne Shorter and the Hallelujah Train

click to enlarge Son of a preacher man: For Blade, there's no difference between sacred and secular music. - LURAH BLADE
  • Lurah Blade
  • Son of a preacher man: For Blade, there's no difference between sacred and secular music.

For some artists, there's a point in the creative process where something unseen and intangible comes into play. Musicians might refer to it as a muse, or divine inspiration, or the collective unconscious.

Brian Blade calls it God, which is only appropriate for a Louisiana preacher's kid who would watch his father, Pastor Brady L. Blade Sr., host a weekly gospel show called The Hallelujah Train on the local CBS affiliate. Brian and his older brother both grew up playing drums in their father's church, and would ultimately venture out into the secular world to make their marks there as well.

Hailed by The New York Times as "the most imaginatively supple drummer in jazz," the 45-year-old musician, composer and bandleader has been a member of the Wayne Shorter Quartet for more than 15 years. He's also played drums on Joni Mitchell's three most recent albums, recorded with Blue Note label mate Nora Jones, and done session work for the likes of Bob Dylan, Marianne Faithfull and Emmylou Harris.

And then there's Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band, who'll be playing six shows over the course of four nights in Denver next week. Compositions like "Stoner Hill," Blade's elegiac ode to the Shreveport neighborhood where he grew up, are among the most beautiful music you'll ever hear. You can go online to view a stunning live performance of the song at the Chicago Music Exchange.

Meanwhile, Blade continues to work with Daniel Lanois on some deeply personal projects that have included Mama Rosa, the drummer's debut album as a singer-songwriter. Lanois also plays guitar in an entirely new Blade family project, which is where our interview begins.

Indy: You played with your father and your brother as The Hallelujah Train at the Savannah Blues Festival a few years ago. Do you find that there's more musical freedom in gospel music than people might assume? At least when you're playing it?

Brian Blade: Well, I guess the short answer is yes. [Laughs.] From my experience, there's all the freedom in the world to be true to your duty within the situation, as in every other situation. But then it's also what you feel; the fulfillment hopefully comes from just that.

But I never feel any kind of restriction when it comes to playing gospel and playing songs of praise, because that's where I started. And, in a way, that's how I see all the music that I play. So there's no difference for me between the sacred and the secular. I don't separate those things.

Your father had a gospel TV show out of Shreveport. Did you ever get to appear on that, or were you way too young?

I was kind of young. It was in the '70s into the very early '80s; it ran at least a decade, and it was called The Hallelujah Train. It was a Sunday morning public service telecast where my father would bring in choirs, quartets and solo gospel artists from our region. So it was taped here in Shreveport through the local CBS affiliate.

My brother was a teenager at the time, so he actually got to host the show sometimes. But I was the little guy just watching from behind the camera, whomever was on that week, Al Green being one of them. Which was awesome.

Back then, the FCC still had public affairs requirements for broadcasters. Could that kind of show even exist now?

Well, I hope that it exists somewhere for communities. And I hope that wherever it's happening, they actually preserve those shows as regional historical documents, unlike the local affiliate here. At that time, it wasn't digital, it was tape, and they probably just taped over it with whatever was next.

It upset me that they didn't value what was happening, and it also made me realize that we need to get The Hallelujah Train operating and manifesting itself in some way or another now. Because my dad is still full of energy and even taking it higher.

I saw a live talk with you and Joni Mitchell where you mentioned how you would drive to high school playing her Hejira and Mingus albums on cassette. At that point, did it even seem within the realm of possibility that you'd go on to play with her?

No, it was never a thought that I would actually meet my heroes, let alone be able to make music with them. It's the same with Wayne Shorter. I'd listen to him on Juju, and Miles Davis Live at the Plugged Nickel, and Art Blakey & The Messengers' Ugetsu. They all had a great impact on my life, man. It just affirms that you really don't know what's coming, you don't know what you're being prepared for.

Having played with Wayne Shorter all these years, what would you say is the thing you've learned from him that no one else could have taught you?

Wow, I don't know if it's something that no one else could have taught me, but one thing I definitely learned from him is that, even with all his genius, and the masterworks he places before us — the scrolls, we call them — and his historic breakthroughs with the Miles Davis Quintet and Weather Report and his own records, he doesn't rest on that. He's still looking for that moment, to look through another door, into some unknown universe within the sound. [Laughs.] We'll be traveling, and waking up at 4 in the morning, and getting on the plane, and he'll be like, "Hey man, let's make a movie!"

If only I can have an ounce of that spirit, and maintain just a little bit of that childlike wonder, into these next 40 years.

Is that something you and the Fellowship Band are doing as well, always looking for that door?

Definitely. Since meeting [Fellowship Band keyboardist] Jon Cowherd when I went to New Orleans to go to Loyola University — and then kind of growing up together, and getting in and out of the van, and walking out onstage together for all these years — it just builds up all this trust that gets deeper and deeper. None of us are giving up or phoning it in. Ever. There's always this great tension and effort to make each time we play another opportunity that could be transformative, not only for ourselves, but for everyone who might experience that moment.

That's a great gift and a great responsibility and, you know, a real embracing of the idea that it might be the last time. So we don't ever take those moments for granted, and I think that's what makes the Fellowship Band special for me.

When you began composing and songwriting yourself for the Mama Rosa album, what instrument did you use?

I write on guitar. And I really owe a great debt to Daniel Lanois, because I was around to see his process of songwriting and creating a sound by the time I picked up his Les Paul and started to play a little.

His music tends to focus more on creativity than showing off. Is that something you strive for, as well?

Yeah, Daniel is such a creative force, and he's always looking for that sound that sparks something in him, that feels like, "Oh, I never heard this before." But you can also put him in any situation, and he's gonna deliver the thing that's needed, whether it's as the guitarist in The Hallelujah Band or setting the sonic landscape for his own music.

And for all his gift and his ability, which is so seemingly boundless, he would never display anything that wasn't essential and necessary just to do it. And I think that, hopefully, I share that same gravity and respect for the music to guide you, more than you trying to impose something on it.

A lot of your music is very composed, and your drumming is really creative. Where do you place yourself on that continuum between melody and groove?

I'm not sure. I guess it's like with my teacher John Vidacovich in New Orleans, we never talked about playing grooves on the drums. We always focused on playing forms and learning melodies and these harmonic progressions while at the drums. And so I think he never mentioned it, because it was sort of a given.

Especially coming from a gospel background.

It was just like, "Well, we're drummers, man. Like, come on." I think if I would've come to him initially with some foundational crack, and the groundwork wasn't laid for knowing how to supply the fundamental feeling, then we would have never moved on to expressing something melodic.

There's a song on your band's most recent album Landmarks called "He Died Fighting" that opens with this kind of military drumbeat. Is there a story behind that?

I guess it speaks somewhat to the martyrs and dreamers of our times, and more specifically to my grandfather, who was a World War II veteran. And to people like Martin Luther King, the ones who truly walk the walk, so to speak, and sometimes make the greatest sacrifice of their own lives. Hopefully it doesn't come to that in our lives, when we try to right wrongs, but you definitely have to do that.

From a social and political perspective, are you optimistic when it comes to what's going on at this point?

Well, I must say it feels much more discouraging at times than it does encouraging, you know? You read about what people are doing to each other, and you just wonder: What are they really looking for with these acts of violence? Our human desires and needs, are they that much different?

I think we all generally want and need the same things — to sustain ourselves and to grow — and then you see what's happening in France or in Mali. But we still have to go about our business, you know, and hopefully send out that frequency that might change people's hearts.

Do you think music can do that?

I hope so. I pray so. [Laughs.] I feel like, if I am truly here to do that, I want to believe that it is making a change, you know, in some way. And sometimes it's not so obvious. You're playing concerts, you're on tour, and it's easy to get a little jaded, because you feel like there's this disconnect.

But I always have to remember that it's like a pebble that you drop into the sea. It creates a ripple, and that ripple keeps going. You don't see it, but it's still floating outward. And I just have to trust that we are doing that. And, hopefully, people are receiving it.

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