By Paul Freeman [September 2011 Interview]

His father is a pastor. But Brian Blades found a different calling - music. The drummer/composer has provided the inventive rhythms for such artists as Joni MItchell, Bob Dylan, Wayne Shorter, Bill Frisell, Herbie Hancock and Emmylou Harris.

He fronts his own group, The Fellowship Band. They’ll perform material from their latest jazz release, “Season of Changes,” as well as new material. They’re working on a new studio album. A live CD is also due in the coming year. Blade formed the band in 1998.

“It’s great being in a band where the bonds are so strong, just as friends,” Blade said. “All the talent aside, we already have, just as people, a real thread. It allows the music to take the foreground. We submit ourselves to the wholeness of what the band is and who we are together. Hopefully that foundation of our union touches other people through the music we create.”

The close ties among the band members benefits the composing of Blade and pianist Jon Cowherd. “It’s great to have Myron Walden or Melvin Butler [the two saxophonists] or Chris Thomas [bassist] or each other, in mind as the melody is making its way to the page. I know what’s going to connect to this dot. Hopefully that all enriches the experience.”

With both the playing and the composing, that group dynamic encourages an adventurous spirit. “The trust that’s there gives you the ability to constantly take chances and know that, even if, in your eyes, you might have missed it, they’re your net. You can kind of stumble on the wire a little bit, but you know that they’re going to catch you,” Blade said, laughing, “and perhaps make something better out of it.”

Blade., 41, wants his music to contribute something positive to people’s lives. “With Fellowship, we would like to impart something deeper. That’s something my Dad is so great at, in his ministry. He tries to walk the walk and believes in the power of that love as a foundation.

“I do believe that there’s a universal language in the sound that can speak to the hearts of people as we listen. I know the endless inspiration I get from listening to John Coltrane’s music or Joni Mitchell’s music or Blind Willie Johnson. And what they impart to you just seems to keep getting deeper and deeper as the years go on. It truly has staying power and value.”

Growing up in Shreveport, Louisiana, Blade recognized the spiritual power of music. He played violin as a child. At 13, he switched to drums, taking his older brother’s spot behind the kit at church.

“The church provided a bedrock for learning to play. There was a grace there, without a pressure to perform or to do anything, but serve. To bring the best of what you have and give that. That gave me a confidence.”

At 18, Blade moved to New Orleans to attend Loyola University, where his teachers included Ellis Marsalis. It was there that Blade met Cowherd and Thomas.

The city had a tremendous effect on Blade’s musical sensibility. “What I learned there became such a part of what I write and how I approach drumming. Sometimes I forget how deeply rooted it is. In hindsight, after I hear a piece, sometimes years go by and I think, ‘Wow, that’s so New Orleans!’ It might not be obvious to someone else, but I’ll hear like those parades in it or the dirge of that funereal sound or just the uniqueness of that place filtering through.”

Blade has enjoyed doing session work for a diverse list of artists. “Hopefully you can find that thing that’s really going to contribute to the song or to the night. And sometimes that contribution might be not playing. Just to figure out, ‘Oh, man, if I don’t play right here, it’s going to make it, be what’s needed.’ It’s a funny wire to walk. But it’s great to be given that liberty, that invitation to play with people you admire and they trust you to bring your gift to the project.

“I don’t change my approach at all. That’s not to say I play the same in every situation. I try to come without any preconception or a bag that I’m coming from, but try to really be open to what’s being played in the moment. I enjoy the challenge.

“If you think about it too much, you’ll feel a pressure - ‘Oh, this is document. This will remain after you and possibly forever.’ But I still try to come at it like it’s a live situation or the living moment, where it’s kind of in the wind. In the studio, you can put things under the microscope, but you don’t want to ignore that initial spark. You don’t want to lose the feeling by over-thinking it, trying to craft it too much. I try to be quick with the action and reaction to things, so hopefully we don’t have to do a lot of takes.

Working with Joni Mitchell was a memorable experience. “It was such an open, blank canvas, at least for my part. It was such a dance. It was great to have that understanding, where she didn’t feel like she had to line out a part for me, but that I would, as she would say, ‘Dot her i’s and cross her t’s.’

Drumming for Dylan was another milestone. “Dylan is, obviously, very much aware of the process of how the words come out. It’s so meticulous and streaming. And a lot of focus is put into it. But then it comes to what is sometimes the mysterious part of how to capture the delivery of the words and the music and band dynamic. That isn’t always so obvious. What makes him so great is that he’s willing to take a chance, to experiment until you find the song.

Collaborating with legendary producer Daniel Lanois impressed Blade. “One of his major gifts is being able to spot. Daniel knows when he hears a great melody or when he hears a great groove, whether it’s in the songs he writes or when he’s bringing it out of someone else. He gets excited by the people in that room, and finding the chemistry and the balance of making a song great.”

Even within the context of The Fellowship Band, Blade is able to explore different styles. “It all feels satisfying to me, from genre to genre. That’s one thing I love about The Fellowship Band. Everyone is willing to interpret songs and find our own group dynamics, whether it’s an open, improvisational landscape or a very small poetic bonsai tree, where we play the same melody over and over. But in that, there is also a personality and a power that you have to step into.”

Playing in Wayne Shorter’s band has been another learning experience. “He has really imparted such a chance-taking spirit. He’s such a genius, one of the greatest composers of any time. When he brings something to the quartet, it’s perfect, as far as I’m concerned and, for me, we don’t have to depart from what’s on the page. But he is already so far beyond. He wants the process to continue. He’s looking for us to deconstruct it or to find some other way to interpret it as a group. He’s such a deep dude. I’ve learned to bring a little of that to The Fellowship Band, as well. He always says, ‘It’s never finished.’ “

In 2009, Blade released “Mama Rosa,” his first album as a singer/songwriter/guitarist. “I felt like it was much more private than anything I’d done before with The Fellowship Band or with anyone else. It was a little bit like putting the diary entries, in song form, out there. But those transmissions needed to be released, regardless of what anyone else felt about the songs, whether they saw it as a drummer making a lyric song record. For me, it just had to come out because I had to express it.

“I’m continually writing songs like that. A lot of the Fellowship music starts with a lyrical idea and then it ends up living in an instrumental world. But sometimes I continue to develop these songs or stories and they become what I would call ‘Mama Rosa’ songs.”

I just want to keep The Fellowship relationship growing and strong. I just hope we continue to have opportunities to share music with each other and with those who are willing to come along on the journey with us.

The Fellowship Band remains his focus. “I just want to keep The Fellowship relationship growing and strong. I just hope we continue to have opportunities to share music with each other and with those who are willing to come along on the journey with us.”

Blade was married in December. His passion for music has never waned. “It’s such a part of me. It occupies so much of my time and thoughts, naturally. And if you feel like you’ve been given a gift, it’s important to nurture that, to be attentive to it. It is what I do. But what makes me what I am, life is so big, and love in life just fortifies or enriches the music, makes it that much deeper. My wife and family, they know, this is what I’m supposed to be doing. It’s great, when there’s that understanding there.””