Brian Blade: This One's For Mama
In a rustic B&B in Vermont, curled up on an antique four-poster bed and sipping herbal tea before sound check, Brian Blade is awfully calm for someone who’s about to drop a bomb on the drumming community.
You may know Blade as the liquid beat in jazz ensemble Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band, a few of whose members he is gigging with tonight in an informal jam. Or perhaps you spied him on the throne backing artists like Bob Dylan and Nora Jones. Whatever the context, the 38-year-old drummer has consistently chafed against his craft’s self-imposed boundaries. With Mama Rosa, Blade crosses the proverbial line in the sand, strapping on an acoustic guitar and bellying up to the microphone. For someone who has accumulated as many plaudits from the drum chair as Blade, it’s a seriously brave move.
“Brave or dumb, I don’t know,” he says laughing. “These gifts are coming to me – at least I see the songs as that – and you know you kind of have an obligation to put it down no matter what the fallout may be after the fact.”
A Singer/Songwriter Is Born.
Surprising as his newfound role is, fans could see the evolution in Blade’s musical personality developing as far back as 2000’s Perceptual, where he sang on at least two tracks. Then there was his heavy involvement on neo-soul diva Lizz Wright’s 2005 album Salt, produced, arranged, drummed on, and guitar-strummed to by Blade. And on last year’s Season Of Changes, The Fellowship Band’s debut on the Verve label, ranging from modern jazz to pop, he offered tantalizing glimpses of his compositional ambitions.
Blade has been playing guitar on and off for ten years, during which time he has steadily improved. In contrast to beating skins for almost 30 years, the axe-work seems like a hobby. In fact, he can barely read guitar tablatures.
“I don’t necessarily read music at the guitar, at least not quickly,” he says. “I’m not that kind of player when it comes to this kind of music. It’s very much a verbal language for me. Unlike the drumming, [where] I can sit down and sight-read music in that way and hopefully get to some interpretive power. But at the guitar it’s not like that for me at all. I need to sit with someone and we need to talk and say, ’Okay, here’s what it sounds like,’ and we can go from there. It’s very much an oral [process].”
The material on Mama Rosa had been accumulating for years, jotted down in notebooks or sung and played directly into his beat-up 4-track in the solitude of his bedroom, wherever he happened to be living at the moment. “That was the greatest challenge because I’m so accustomed to composing something and writing it down and I’d take it to the group and they’d make it come a life,” he says, referring to the modus operandi of The Fellowship Band. “But these songs weren’t necessarily like that for me. They really had to stand in a singular way, sort of singing the songs alone and hearing it back on tape and saying, ’There’s something there,’ and, ’Should I develop it further?’”
Fans know Blade is a musical omnivore, and so this current bout of instrument swapping was almost a given. His taking on vocals at the same time, however, may lead them to wonder why one of jazz’s most nuanced interpreters is going all coffeehouse on us. Even bigger than his instrumental first love, it’s the church – Shreveport, Louisiana’s Zion Baptist, where his father is still pastor – that remains his single biggest musical influence. “I definitely started singing in church a long time ago, before I started playing drums,” he says, “so maybe that does precede that part of my musical trip.”
From there his interests led to country, folk, blues, rock, and other styles that cross-pollinate in the Ark-La-Tex – a tri-state border region in the northwestern part of the state, the heart of which is Shreveport. In particular, it was the local alt-country band Picket Line Coyotes who stand out in his memory. “Unfortunately they disbanded, but they went on to form a group called The Gourds, The Damnations, and a couple of other groups. I look back on them as a real seed: Here’s a band really doing it, making music together, making a personal statement.”
It goes without saying that Mama Rosa is deeply personal. If most solo offerings are a metaphorical key to a diary, this feels like you’re eavesdropping on a stranger’s thoughts. “I guess it’s a – I wouldn’t say a family memoir – but it’s dedicated to my experiences so far and my brother and my mother and father and grandmother, Rosa, and Shreveport and the various places I’ve lived after I left home and that I’ve seen along the way.”
The album goes beyond the merely autobiographical, displaying a Faulkneresque ability to get inside other characters’ heads. The lead-off tune, “After The Revival,” is vivid in its specificity, imagining what was going on in his mother’s mind just before going into labor with older brother Brady back in ’65. “I let myself create a little story of how she might have felt expecting her first child,” he explains. “My dad’s maybe away on revival, and they’re trying to build a house, and who’s there? Well, it’s my grandma and my granddad looking after my mom. I haven’t even talked to my mother about this, but I feel like there’s some truth in it and some imagery from my hometown that hopefully resonates with her.”
With its lilting acoustic melodies and gentle croon floating from Blade’s gospel-choir-trained lungs, you might just mistake Mama Rosa for a lost collection of B-Sides from the ’60s Laurel Canyon scene – probably the result of Blade collaborating with one of that era’s biggest icons. “I’ve been so blessed to be around some of my heroes that do have to do that for themselves. You know, Joni Mitchell obviously, who I have to mention because she’s probably my greatest inspiration in terms of what can be revealed with words.” No surprise Blade would call her out, because Mama’s most powerful track, “Mercy Angel,” could have flowed from Mitchell’s pen, and a tune that Blade half-jokingly calls the album’s “country” song.
If “singer/songwriter” sometimes has connotations of being lightweight, then Blade has a radically different definition of the label. “All Gospel Radio,” homage to the KLSM station in Shreveport, is an instrumental passage of Brian Eno—style dark ambience that segues into “Psalm 100,” the final track. “They’re kind of like two tonal centers,” Blade says, “with ’All Gospel Radio’ being kind of E minor and then ’Psalm 100’ being sort of this A major sound.
“There are songs on the album that are quite brief,” he continues. “The world doesn’t have to shake you all the time for you to notice it. ’There’s something unfolding here, even if it’s subtle,’ and I can appreciate it just as much as that huge fill around the drums.”
“At The Centerline” is a perfect example of the gaping void that sometimes exists between lyricist and composer. The guitars wail and smolder like an orchestral Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young while the Silverlake Male Chorus lends it further transcendence, but the fact that Blade begins this number with the serenity prayer – that platitude memorialized in needlepoint across the Midwest – would have wrecked it had the music not been so strong. Oh well, one doesn’t become a poet overnight.
Give The Drummers Some.
Blade hasn’t forgotten that most of his fans know him for his work from the throne. Not only did he record all the drum parts on Mama Rosa, but he also changed them up wherever possible. Anyone with half an ear can appreciate the swung meter he does on “Second Home,” a tribute to New Orleans drumming legend Johnny Vidacovich, who had a huge impact on Blade. “He’s definitely one of the main reasons I went to New Orleans, and I’m glad I got him in a song. You’re always indebted to your teachers. They open doors for you and help you see things in another way. It’s something that’s continually growing within me. All those lessons and just being around him and able to hear him and see him informed so much of how I try and make music.”
“Second Home” might be Mama’s NOLA tribute but “All That Was Yesterday” has a second-line thing going on, too, yet it’s nothing like the drum part of the former. “It all comes from New Orleans, that groove,” Blade admits. “Just manifested in a another way. That street beat, which is a march, which is something that moves you from the ground up.”
The constantly morphing meter on “Get There” may remain a mystery since Blade is loath to analyze it. “To be honest, I don’t know,” he says of the time signature. “It’s got this ’passing train’ vibe in it, in the sense that it’s such a fragile thing. Once you shift gears to where you’re not singing and playing the guitar, to playing the drums, you can’t just bury the motion of the song with backbeats. It has to have this levity and forward motion, so then, ’How do I achieve that?’ It’s like you end up thinking about Zigaboo or John Guerin – this hi-hat propulsion where obviously the backbeat is felt, you’re feeling groove, but in the endless ways that a groove can manifest itself. I just try and lean on my instincts.”
To hear Blade tell it, working on Mama Rosa was often a process of subtraction, of knowing when to lay off or leave well enough alone, and sometimes that meant leaving out drums all together, as he did with a handful of tracks. “I’m not going to just force drums on it because it’s a conventional [thing to do]. If it made sense then great, but if not I didn’t want to overwhelm the story line of the piece.”
None other than superstar record producer Daniel Lanois, who was in fact not a producer on this release but was, according to Blade, a “guiding spirit,” instilled the principle of treading lightly. “It’s great to have a friend like that that you can look to, who has that depth of experience and depth of person, and know that they’re listening with their ears and their hearts open wide. They’re going to tell you what they really feel about it.”
Lanois provided concrete advice (not to mention a couple of smoking guitar solos) on every aspect of the music – even drum parts. On “Get There,” for example, Blade recalls, “He was like, ’Why don’t you try and cut this song [using] Stevie Wonder’s method: Play the drums and then sing and play guitar.’ So that was weird for me because when I made my little 4-tracks at home, I don’t play the drums at all. I’m just trying to hear the bare essentials of what the song is: guitar and words. So ’Get There’ was almost done in reverse.”
As far as official producer, that title is shared between Blade and Adam Samuels. “He’s my most important sounding board,” says Blade. “So hats off to that and his musicality, but also his honesty in helping me to know when something was transmitting and when it wasn’t. Sometimes you’re sitting there by yourself and so close to it that you’re not certain. Maybe you have a feeling, but it’s not always to be trusted. Adam was there always to say, ’Okay, let’s call Greg Liesz and have him play steel with you on this,’ or ’Let’s have so-and-so do a back-up vocal,’ and then all of a sudden the picture comes into clear view.”
As to whether Samuels did a different miking arrangement on the drums for each track or kept it the same, the two men strived for the latter but just as often practiced the former. “I keep asking him about that and he’s, ’I always do the same thing’ [laughs], so I guess it’s more of a performance that [needs to] get captured in a different way. But yeah, he essentially sets it and gets a general vibe and tries to stick with it.”
Though Blade’s nifty Canopus kit was never used during the sessions, the drummer did set up his own blend of modern and vintage Zildjians. “I’ve definitely spent the most time growing and changing with the cymbals that I’ve been playing for the last [several] years,” he says. “So I kind of like to have them if I don’t have anything else – because they’re familiar to me. But with the drumming a lot of time, Daniel Lanois and myself, we share a love of pawnshops and drums that have character. So when we were recording at his place I knew he had his old Radio Kings there. They had a great tone and so I played them mostly on the record and a couple other pieces. ’Get There’ maybe might have been with this old double-sided ... a cow drum, I call it. It’s got the calfskin on both sides and rope construction but it makes a great bass drum because it’s just between an 18" and a 20", somewhere around that diameter.”
Another noteworthy bit of camouflage was the tune “Struggling With That,” which would appear to be brushwork burnishing the snare into a silvery mist. “It’s a sticks performance,” Blade says. “I guess it just sounds pretty crunchy.”
With well over 100 studio credits, nearly all of them on drums, Blade has accumulated enough tricks that he could get what he wanted without relying on Samuels’ technical expertise. Sonic variety, like the wet, popping snare on “Her Song,” for instance, was achieved through time-tested means. “I put a tea towel [on the batter head] and somehow it seemed to sit and let the guitars do other rhythmic work that connected things a little better,” he explains. “I don’t know who was the first person to do that, like if it’s Al Jackson putting a wallet on the snare or Ringo putting towels on the toms, but that’s basically what I did.”
With its grainy warmth, listeners could be forgiven for thinking Mama Rosa was recorded to 2" tape, an idea that tickles Blade. “Actually it was cassette tape,” he says, erupting with laughter. At least a third of what was lifted from his trusty tape recorder made it onto the final recording intact (and in the spots where it wasn’t, you’d be hard-pressed to hear the difference). “Adam uses this system called Radar which is very analogue in its operation, even though it is a digital format. So from my 4-track cassettes he would have transferred it onto the system. So if need be, we could play to those things [on the 4-track] or just mix them in that [Radar] environment.”
Bringing It Back Home.
Employing a group of musicians primarily from The Fellowship Band, the plan for taking Mama Rosa live is to road test it briefly in Japan, where Blade figures the performances will primarily be drum-less, just to focus on his newfound job of singing and playing. Not that multitasking is a problem for him: “It’s almost one of those things where one part of the engine drives the other.”
Blade inherited his first drum kit from his older brother, Brady, when the elder sibling went away to college around 1982. Now Blade will return the favor by having Brady occupy the drum chair when a proper tour commences in the States later this summer. Unbelievably, the brothers have never played together in a formal band setting, and it’s this unknown quantity that fills Blade with excitement. “There is such an individualism to the way Brady hits and the way he interprets groove, and the way I do,” he says. “They’re very different, but the similarities, they bond us beyond the differences. There’s this intuitive and genetic connection.”
Family – blood-based kith and kin – is psychic glue for Blade. Its centrality to the musician’s life is the inspiration behind Mama Rosa. But the brothers’ imminent rendezvous had a practical element since Blade needs someone with rhythmic intuition as keen as his own. “Brady has that sensitivity as he does in every situation, so that instinct kicks in.” That doesn’t mean Blade won’t allow his older bro to have a little wiggle room. “We want to stay true to the record as much as possible but also true to the moment, because as you play things live more and more, they start to change and you don’t want to necessarily restrain anything. I want whatever is going to unfold to happen.”
Ironic how the most daring artistic endeavor thus far in a musician’s career coincides with an equally humble gesture. Blade has returned home to Shreveport to settle down after a long stint in the cosmopolitan hothouse of New Orleans, and more recently, Brooklyn, where he had an apartment for the last eight years. Without putting too fine a point on the religion thing, the draw of the church may have proved more powerful than even Blade supposed. If drumming and singing rubbed off on him there as a kid, so did his father’s fire-and-brimstone sermons. “The faith for me, I mean, I have to acknowledge that it’s God’s grace that has brought me this far and allows me to do what I do. I guess going to the airport and flying around is the hardest part, but it’s like, ’Wow, can I really call this work?’”
A Brother’s Perspective
Having laid drum tracks for Steve Earle, Indigo Girls, Emmylou Harris, and Dave Matthews, Brady Blade, elder sibling of Brian, clearly knows his way around a drum kit.
“When Brian called me about doing the Mama Rosa tour and playing a few dates, he’s like, ’We’ll switch up some. You’ll play guitar on a few things and I’ll do some drums, or whatever it’s going to be,’” says Brady, who is also an experienced music producer, talent manager, and jingle composer. “It’s kind of loose in that sense of what our duties are going to be, but there’s definitely some drumming on Mama Rosa that is classic Brian Blade that I could never really replicate.”
As teens, the brothers Blade attended a magnet school in Shreveport, Louisiana for an accelerated music program, yet Brady quickly conceded that Brian was the more serious drummer. “When we were kids Brian would be in his room listening to Elvin Jones playing with Trane or Philly Jo, and really studying these guys,” he says. “He got his own style at a very young age as a result of his work ethic. I was mostly building hot rods, chasing girls, drinking.”
Although this will be the first time the two have played together professionally, an impromptu concert organized not long ago by their father bodes well for on-road chemistry. “Brian and I actually got to do double drums,” he says, “We were playing the same thing – we’d approach stuff the same way, and laughing the whole time.”
To gear up for the first proper outing with his brother, Brady has been “married to” his copy of Mama Rosa. “Of course, structure-wise I’m going to see what the song is like on record,” he says. “But I know that with the players that are involved in the live part of it, it’s going to turn into a monster.”
The tour is slated to kick off in New York but Brady is thinking he may fly to Los Angeles before then to hang out with his brother’s Fellowship Band, at least two-thirds of which will be Mama Rosa’s live lineup. Faced with the roster of mega talent, he knows the possibility of getting to play guitar when Brian mans the drum chair are slim to none. “I’ll probably be sitting on the sidelines to be honest. But as long as I’m there playing a few songs supporting my brother, whatever he wants me to do, that’s what I’m going to do.”
1 16" x 14" Bass Drum
2 15" x 6.5" Ludwig Chrome-Over-Brass Snare Drum (’20s era)
3 12" x 8" Tom
4 14" x 14" Floor Tom
A 15" Zildjian Hi-hats (from ’60s)
B 22" Zildjian K Constantinople Light Ride
C 24" Zildjian A Ride (from ’60s)
D 22" Spizzichino Ride
Brian Blade also uses Aquarian heads, Vic Firth sticks and mallets, and Regal Tip brushes. Blade also occasionally uses Gretsch and Sonor drums.
Another Side Of Blade
I have a very good reason for disliking drummers who sing well: jealousy, pure jealousy. In Brian Blade’s case, it’s easy to forgive him since his new disc, Mama Rosa, is so darn good. Blade’s drumming has always been deeply musical, but the drumming is fairly minimal on this disc. Don’t get me wrong – it’s perfect, but remains in the background, and never calls undue attention to itself lest it distract you from the song.
“At The Centerline”
Blade plays a sparse groove at the beginning of this song using his bass drum, hi-hat, and high tom. The kick drum and bass blend together in this mix, but the tom is usually on 2 and 4 with the hi-hat chicked with the foot. There’s a time-signature change near the two-minute mark to 10/4, or you may prefer to think of it as two bars of 4/4 tagged with a 2/4 bar.