Revered Drummer Brian Blade Draws a Through-Line from Jazz to Gospel

Brian Blade.  (Courtesy of SFJAZZ)

Thanks to his greatest mentor, Brian Blade has learned to never stop exploring.

As he tells KQED Arts over the phone from his home in Shreveport, Louisiana, that man is his father, Brady L. Blade, Sr., who’s been pastor at Zion Baptist Church in his hometown for more than 50 years.

“He’s been reading the same Scriptures for 75 years now, and he’s still digging,” he emphasizes, slowing his phrasing to carefully tend to each syllable, “still looking to share this parable in another way to make it resonate with someone who’s there listening.”

“I carry that with me,” he says. “I hope that I have just a bit of his dedication.”

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Blade is likely best known for his role supporting saxophone legend Wayne Shorter in his current quartet, a post he's held for the past 17 years. Shorter's band is revered in the jazz realm for their near-telepathic connection to one another, building to electric crescendos from a blank musical slate. But this week, when he appears at SFJAZZ’s Miner Auditorium as part of the 36th annual San Francisco Jazz Festival, Blade presents a more folkloric side of his musical mind.

On June 12, Blade leads the Fellowship, a group he fronts with composer and pianist Jon Cowherd, with whom he started writing music at Loyola University in 1988. The ensemble also features Myron Walden on alto saxophone and bass clarinet, Melvin Butler on soprano and tenor saxophones, Chris Thomas on bass and Kurt Rosenwinkel on guitar. The Fellowship's career spans two decades and five gorgeous gospel-infused albums, each one a celebration of, and testament to, the deep sense of unity and intention that marks the Fellowship's approach.

Compared to the tightly-wound tension and release present in his work with Shorter, which at times can build to a violent, cathartic intensity, Blade's music with the Fellowship may feel subdued. But this is by choice—their focus as an ensemble has long been cultivating a synchronized collective performance as opposed to highlighting virtuoso soloists, an outgrowth of what Blade refers to as a "fraternal unity" within the group.

“One of the many things I love about the band and our collective voice is that we all have reverence for the pure melodic content of a song, of storytelling, of that simplicity,” Blade shares. “It takes a great discipline and focus and submission to find your part, even if that part means not playing."

Before the group's self-titled debut in 1998, Blade was well on his way toward building a highly successful career as a session musician, drumming on tour and in the studio with jazz's rising talents and even some icons of rock and roots music. By that time, he had already worked with Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris and Joshua Redman, and had just started collaborating with Joni Mitchell, one of his musical heroes. Yet he says he still felt an “unction,” an incessant desire to share his own musical voice with the world.

There’s an ecstatic revelation to the Fellowship's music, and a depth that emerges in time from what, on the surface, sounds simple. Blade admits that jazz may be the pronounced through-line in the music, but the sonic textures also reveal shades of country, folk and gospel, the latter a natural outgrowth from his formative years playing drums in Zion Baptist's worship band.

Take the three versions of the title track of the group’s latest, Body and Shadow, released late last year. Demarcated by time—morning, noon and night—the underlying melody may sound similar in all three versions, but the essence is quite different in each short, impressionistic take. Blade likens the approach to staring out the same window as the day passes, an act that seems static until one examines the changes in their surroundings. “You realize we’re turning on this axis,” he says. “We’re in this massive universe and things are moving and we don’t even perceive it necessarily.”

Similarly, there are two versions of the spiritual “Have Thine Own Way, Lord," with Cowherd’s solo performance on harmonium providing a bittersweet reading that turns triumphant in the full band’s hands.

With each subsequent project, the Fellowship seems more content to explore the nuances of a composition rather than continually revisit the “improvisation chasm” present in instrumental jazz, when a soloist steps into the spotlight to improvise while the rest of the band follows their musical lead. There’s a definite power present in their restraint.

"Obviously, the improvisation chasm that we can all step into is also something I love, but at the same time, I love striking the balance between playing what you want and playing what’s there, and only that," says Blade.

Dedication comes up plenty in interviews with Blade, albeit in a selfless sense. He speaks of notions like surrendering to the moment, or finding the best avenue to “serve the song" in a given musical context. It's a mindset he soaked up during those early days  in church ensemble from people like organist Colette Murdoc, music director Donnell Hickman and his older brother Brady, Jr., whose drum seat Brian stepped into at age 13.

“They gave it all, so perfectly and beautifully and powerfully, to the worship, to the praise and to the music that they were responsible for. Anything less would be—” he trails off, catching himself with a playful laugh. “How can you not give it all? How can you not actually feel good about that?”

Blade's followed their example quite well in the years since. It's rare to see him playing without a grin on his face, no matter the musical context.

Brian Blade and the Fellowship perform at SFJAZZ in 2016.
Brian Blade and the Fellowship perform at SFJAZZ in 2016. (Grason Littles)

Asked if the rest of the Fellowship feels a similar same sense of purpose and musical responsibility when performing, he says, “I think so. I would hope so. I feel like each of us individually has our own sort of desire in life, like you feel this calling to do what we’re doing, and the desire to not take that lightly but to cultivate and make it so that that oneness is revealed in the sound.

"When there’s that sort of sharing, and singular mindedness when it comes to being a part of a group, then I think the music can really become that cosmic healing chemical," he adds. "Then the alchemy is like ‘Oh, yeah. This is medicine. This is what we needed.'"

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Brian Blade and the Fellowship perform Tuesday, June 12, at the SFJAZZ Center. Details here.

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