J. D. Blair and Victor Wooten are on stage laying down a flurry of polyrhythmic musicality on a tune they call “You Can’t Hold No Groove.” Blair, known as “The Groove Regulator,” drives the duo onward with a relentless energy that seems to levitate the drum kit. Wooten matches Blair’s energy and inventiveness with his own free-flowing bass lines. They call their collaboration 2 Minds 1 Groove, and they live up to the title every night, with sets that are largely improvised. Those who knew Blair only from his timekeeping with Shania Twain may have been surprised by his funky approach. But funk, jazz, gospel, pop, and country music all played a part in his education. “There’s only two kinds of music, good and bad,” Blair says. “I’ll play a polka, as long as it’s good and grooving.”
Blair shows off his gift for the groove on his new album, 2012?. The set took four years to put together and includes an impressive roster including Wooten, Kat Dyson (Prince), Natalie MacMaster, Kelley O’Neal (O’Jays, Take 6), Erin Leahy (Shania Twain), Spike (James Brown), and dozens of others. Blair recorded and produced the album himself, with an ear toward creating a huge sonic space with a lot of musical texture. There’s Celtic funk, symphonic pop, Latin grooves that move from 3/2 to 6/8 to 2/3, gospel music, and more. Tracks are full of impressive little details — a phase-shifted cowbell here, a bit of timbales there — and under it all, the solid pulse Blair’s known for. “I was inspired by P-Funk,” he says. “They have all this subtle stuff going on that jumps out at you with repeated listening. I like to hide little bits for people to discover on their own.” The album’s range is impressive and shows off Blair’s skill as a composer, arranger, and player.
Like many drummers, Blair started his career tapping out rhythms on tabletops in the family living room. “My father had a knack for singing; he dabbled locally in gospel quartets. He had a bass, but I was too small to hold it, so I started out by playing on books and furniture,” Blair recalls from the home he shares with his wife and family in Nashville. “I didn’t have any ideas about rhythm at that age, I was just making sounds on the furniture with Lincoln Logs and pencils. It was the easiest thing to do. I remember hearing James Brown and Motown stuff on the radio and trying to play along. My grandmother supervised the church Sunday school and she had a key to open the door to the choir loft. There was a drum kit up there.”
Once he got his hands on a proper drum kit, there was no stopping him. He played with other young men in the church band, backed up visiting gospel acts and soaked up Motown, James Brown and the other sounds he heard on the radio. Then he saw the concert that changed his life. “Bootsy Collins played Huntsville with BT Express and Cameo. I’d just gotten an 8-track of Mothership Connection and, even before the show, I was thinking that I wanted to be in a band. Then he came out with his huge Afro and shades and I saw how he took control of the audience and that was it. At one point, the spotlight on his bass set off a flash that hit me right in the eye. I was converted.”
When he was in high school, Blair’s father bought him a Ludwig snare drum. He made his own bass drum using the snare drum case and a kick pedal and borrowed a cymbal to use as a hi-hat. He played in the marching band, symphony, and jazz band. He worked an after-school job, bought his first drum kit, and started playing in funk and jazz bands on the weekends. John Paul Lindberg recruited Blair for Norfolk State University’s marching band, nicknamed “The Million Dollar Funk Squad.” For two years, he made contributions to the writing and arranging of the band’s cadences.
Then his grandmother got sick and Blair went back home. “My grandmother took care of me after my mother died, so I returned the favor. I finished school at Alabama A&M, where I met the Wooten brothers and started putting bands together.” Riapsedon, a band with fellow students at Alabama A&M, was good enough to open shows for stars like Peabo Bryson, but they couldn’t keep it together. “I joined a cover band called Rosé. They weren’t interested in fills or drum solos; they wanted the pocket and the groove.” Blair locked down the beat and stayed with the band until he moved to Nashville at his wife’s urging. “She told me to follow my dream, so we took the plunge.”
A singing group Blair knew from his days playing in church had morphed into Take 6. They’d moved to Nashville and invited Blaire to join them. “I was married by then and thinking about family obligations, so I was about to enlist in the Air Force. My recruiter told me if it didn’t work out in Nashville, I could always come back and enlist.” Take 6 introduced Blair to Lyle Lovett, who hired him for his Large Band. Soon after, Mutt Lange and Shania Twain came calling. They’d already auditioned 82 drummers, but Blair’s solid timekeeping and knowledge of Twain’s music got him the gig. “I ran over to Walmart, got her CDs, and wrote out charts for the tunes they were going to try me out on,” Blair laughs. “They flew me to Albany, New York, for the audition. I was playing air drums on the plane to get a feel for the tracks. I did a TV show with them a few days later and, after the rehearsal, her management asked me how much I wanted to get paid. That’s how I found out I had the gig.”
The Twain gig made Blair a force in Nashville and led to session work and touring with names like CeCe Winans, Bootsy Collins, Wynonna Judd, India.Arie, Shelby Lynne, George Duke, old pal Victor Wooten, and Celtic fiddler Natalie MacMaster, who appreciated his funky approach to the music of Cape Breton. “I’d include a bit of funk, jazz, and Latin that caused the music to evolve. After I learned the songs and the nuances of her style, I played with my own feel and never looked back.
“I tell musicians that you have to do it because you love it, cause chances are, you’re not gonna make any money doing it. If you get blessed, you can survive, but that’s the bonus. You have to do it for love, because if you don’t love it, it’ll kill you.”
J.D. Blair has all the groove any drummer could want, and while most of 2012? features tasty instrumental R&B songs, “Orf” is a solo drum groove that percolates with funk and odd twists. Blair uses inverted paradiddle patterns with lots of ghost notes and performs a beat displacement in bar three, where he temporarily shifts the emphasis to the ahs of the beats. Like in much of 2012?, Blair uses an electronic kit for this track.