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Published: 2014/11/29
by Ron Hart

Brian Blade: A Landmark Year

2014 has been quite a banner run for Brian Blade.

For two decades, the 44-year-old son of a Zion Baptist pastor has been on the incredibly short list of iconic jazz drummers from his generation, having worked with a diverse array of artists including Wayne Shorter, Daniel Lanois, Joni Mitchell, Ellis Marsalis, Marianne Faithfull, Emmylou Harris, Billy Childs, Herbie Hancock, Dorothy Scott and Bob Dylan in addition to leading his own group The Brian Blade Fellowship, which he founded in 1997.

However, these last 12 months have seen the Shreveport, LA, native make a triumphant return to his long-time label Blue Note Records with the excellent Landmarks, perhaps his most daring and diverse LP with the Fellowship yet. Additionally, Blade appears on guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel’s latest LP alongside bassist Larry Grenadier of the Brad Mehldau Trio as well as seeing the release of a deluxe edition of Emmylou Harris’s 1995 game-changing country masterpiece Wrecking Ball, which features his hushed drum work throughout both the original LP and bonus disc of killer rare material.

And lest we forget to mention Mama Rosa, his R&B-kissed singer-songwriter project that finds him in the grand company of Don Henley, Phil Collins, Ringo Starr and the late, great Levon Helm as one of the great singing drummers of our time.

Jambands caught up with Mr. Blade earlier this summer to speak with him about all the great things on his plate, where he opened up about the importance of historic preservation, jamming with Joni and Blue Note faves among other topics of conversation.

The idea of preservation…is that where you were coming from when you named the album Landmarks ?

It’s definitely a part of it. These markers that sort of, that you know where you are. A form of reference for a place, no matter where it might be. Sometimes those landmarks…they don’t last forever. It was more about, okay, here’s where we are now. This batch of songs and the band’s existence. It was sort of like focusing on the photograph that my friend Michelle shot. Sort of a modern ruin. Windows that remain, that was once a part of some kind of structure or house or adobe. I don’t know where Michelle shot that photograph but it spoke to me. The fact that the window pane was still there standing on those stones with no structure around it kind of left a glimmer of hope. I guess I like to think that way when things like Roseland or the Village Gate or CBGB’s, when they aren’t there anymore. You still have the people that inhabited those places, to a certain degree. It’s about a moment in time.

How about in Louisiana? How are they down there in terms of preservation?

Good and bad. The picture of America to a certain degree, this land is that old. Modern development and all that, urbanism. Things fall by the wayside over time, unfortunately. Other places we used to play that we feel are unofficial to the city culturally. I don’t know, you just sort of have to move on the best you can.

It’s like this weird suburban Americana kind of thing, especially in heavily populated areas.

I guess that’s what makes a place like the Village Vanguard so special, because they…stuck to their story, so to speak. And it’s still living and pulsing with music every night. It’s a real testament and obviously in this country something unusual, unfortunately.

How’d you like playing the Vanguard?

We’ve tried to play every year for the last almost decade. It’s truly special, to walk into that space and to know at one time John Coltrane stood on that very stage…the history, the makers of the history of the music, basically, came into that room. It’s truly special.

Have you had people that were maybe U2 fans or fans of Daniel Lanois that kind of got into jazz through the sideman thing…they see you playing drums on those albums and then get into jazz?

No, that’s something that I haven’t really talked to anyone about. I hope that might be the case. Listen, there’s so much music…genre can just not be a subject. Just like “I want to hear this record.” It’s hard to say. I always tried to keep my mind open to playing music and whatever the situation was, trying to serve that situation without any preconception. Like, okay, these are Daniel Lanois songs or these are Joni Mitchell songs or these are Wayne Shorter songs. How can I serve the songs? Hopefully at that point you’re not thinking about, oh this is rock or this is folk or this is jazz, but what fits the music.

Joni was really good at bringing jazz into rock and pop crowds. She was so key at that. The first time I heard Jaco Pastorius was on a Joni Mitchell record.

It kind of happened that way for me too, somewhat simultaneously with the Weather Report Heavy Weather album and Joni’s record Hejira. Her harmonic sensibility is so much wider than, say, traditional music that might be considered folk or even pop. I think that’s why she loved playing with people like Jaco. The musicianship could handle that kind of song…serving the song to a greater degree.

Did you talk to her about jazz, was she cool to have conversations with or was it just work?

We always talked about everything. We were up late listening to Duke Ellington, that’s what we were focusing on at that time. Obviously she was a couple of generations ahead of me, so she was great with popular culture and dance culture, she connected with that. It was great to know she has all of that in her.

How did you link up with Daniel Lanois?

He was living in New Orleans, say the late 80s through the mid 90s, and I was studying at Loyola University in New Orleans. I met him around that time, around 1992 or 3. Just around the time he released his second solo album, called For the Beauty of Wynona. We met just after it was finished. It was about to come out and we met and we got together to do some rehearsing and then we ended up going on tour for three months shortly thereafter. We became fast friends. Such a great inspiration to me, and such a great friend. Yeah man, it keeps going. We just played up in Montreal.

I’m surprised U2’s never received a jazz tribute or anything. I think the music would lend itself pretty well.

It’s just a matter of a musician connecting with that music, not unlike what I do when I’m focusing on writing my own music. I try and arrange other people’s music where I hear this and I feel like I can come up with my own interpretation of it without altering it to the degree of making it unrecognizable. Hopefully someone will do that.

I like your aspect, your relationship with rock music through Daniel Lanois. I saw you worked on Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball. That album completely broke new ground for country.

Daniel has a God-given gift. Whatever he puts his hand to, he flourishes in a way and touches people due to what he puts into it. His passion and his heart and faith, and involving people that he believes in, which is how I came to be part of playing on Wrecking Ball, through his invitation. It’s great. He goes with his instinct.

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