If it’s top-tier, creative jazz drums you need, Brian Blade is the go-to man. But the American drummer has few gaps in his diary. He’s in the engine room of saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s quartet, is part of Bill Frisell’s entourage and is Chick Corea’s drummer of choice – the pianist’s trio, with Blade on board, headlined the recent London Jazz Festival. On top of this, his Fellowship band, on the go since the late 1980s, will release their fifth album next year.
And there’s more: Blade has performed and recorded with Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, plays regularly with Emmylou Harris and, as of last Thursday, is touring Scandinavia in the band of Daniel Lanois, multi-instrumentalist and producer to the likes of Brian Eno, U2 and Dylan.
Commitments like these mean Blade, 42, has to fit promoting his own band around other musicians’ schedules – and is difficult to get hold of. I finally caught up with him over the summer during a residency at the PizzaExpress Jazz Club in Soho, London, playing in the band of pianist Jon Cowherd, a founding member of Fellowship.
The interplay between Cowherd and Blade is crucial to Fellowship. “Somehow Jon’s music and mine are in neutral corners,” he tells me over coffee before the soundcheck. “But they make a cohesive listening experience mostly because of our friendship, [our] understanding.”
That understanding, built up over more than 20 years, underpins a technically demanding, intensely collaborative sound. The Fellowship’s music is a complex, unfolding narrative of sonorous folk songs and back-country hymns, New Orleans laments and jazz bordering on the abstract.
The band “kind of formed itself, in New Orleans, once I met Jon Cowherd in 1988, and then [bassist] Chris Thomas in 1989,” he tells me. It grew when all three members moved to New York in the mid-1990s and recruited saxophonists Melvin Butler and Myron Walden. “These are my Ellingtonians”, says Blade. “I want to play with these people.”
He talks little of his own contribution. He seems happiest discussing the people who helped him grow musically, starting with his pastor father and “the praise environment” of the Zionist Baptist church choir in Shreveport, Louisiana, where he grew up.
“The great thing I like about the church is that most times … most of the people singing are not professional musicians by any stretch,” says Blade. “They have a gift or a desire to sing songs of praise and everybody makes time to rehearse, and it’s serious. But they avoid the less attractive side of music, the analytical, technical side of things.” This has its place, he acknowledges – “but sometimes it can end up taking away that charm and innocence”.
Blade was 13 when he took over the drums in the choir from his elder brother. He was also playing violin in the school orchestra; it was that band’s director, Dorsey Summerfield, a professional musician, who introduced Blade to jazz. “He was the one who told us what we needed to hear,” Blade recalls. “It was a part of our schools system.”
Blade left home at 18 to study at Loyola University in New Orleans. Among his teachers were veteran drummer John Vidacovich, but also important were the countless gigs Blade played at weddings and clubs. “It was all about trying to develop a relationship with my instrument and serving the song, whatever the song was at that moment,” he says.
Hard work, sensitivity to others and an awareness of different acoustic environments were crucial. “I practised playing the same thing at the most intense level, and at pianissimo. I was always trying to let my reflexes and my ear govern what’s needed, and respond to the moment.”
It is the way Blade absorbs influences that really makes him stand out. He is by no means the only jazz musician to work in rock, but he is unusual in the extent to which it informs his jazz aesthetic. His fractured, polyrhythmic pulse is steeped in jazz history, but he infuses it with the ghostly shapes of crisp country backbeats, bar-room boogies and street-march dirges. No wonder his services are in demand.
Shorter recruited him in 2000. “He’s a bright light with a cinematic view of things,” says Blade, describing the saxophonist’s habit of prowling the stage in a constant search for something to be collectively spirited from the ether.
He still finds it a thrill to play with Shorter, Corea and others. “I already had a relationship [with them] through all the music,” he says. “Then all of a sudden you’re in their lives directly. They become people. And your reverence for them grows deeper. And I’m thankful for that.”
Brian Blade is on tour with Daniel Lanois in Scandinavia to December 12; with Jon Cowherd’s Mercy Project in Europe from January 8 to 15; and at Carnegie Hall with Wayne Shorter on February 1 www.brianblade.com