“Sometimes I think New Orleans might as well be Paris,” says Brian Blade, 46, a Shreveport native who moved back to his hometown some three and a half years ago. The master drummer, who has been a member of the legendary saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s quartet since its inception in 2000 and has been leading his own ensemble, Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band, for 20 years, admits that he doesn’t get down to New Orleans very often.
Despite his demanding schedule, Blade promises his neglect of New Orleans will change starting in February. On Friday, February 10, he and the Fellowship will collaborate with the Loyola University Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dr. Jean Montès. On Saturday, February 11 and Sunday, February 12, at the Old U.S. Mint and Snug Harbor, respectively, Blade will be behind the drums with Davy Mooney’s band in celebration of guitarist’s new album, Hope of Home.
“I really have to stay in touch with my friends like [guitarist Steve] Masakowski and I need to get in touch with Mr. Marsalis and just start arranging things,” says Blade, who moved to New Orleans in his teens to study first with drummer Johnny Vidacovich at Loyola and then with drummer David Lee at the University of New Orleans. It wasn’t long before he was off to New York.
“It was time, it seems for us, my wife and I, to move back to where we were from,” Blade offers, adding that his wife, who he met when they were 16, grew up across the Red River in Bossier City.
The meeting between the Fellowship Band and Loyola’s Symphony stands as a first-time experience for both ensembles.
“This is new territory for us,” says Blade of performing with an orchestra of some 60 pieces. “I’m thankful that there are still some firsts in life and that this is happening where [at Loyola] I met [pianist] Jon Cowherd. So we’re returning to a certain root for us, New Orleans being the place where people let us in on the secret.”
“The bulk of the experience will be the fusion of the two ensembles that usually perform separately with different repertoires,” Dr. Montès explains, adding that the theme of the night is “Becoming One.” “It will be pushing both groups to listen differently and interact differently in a setting that is basically fusing classically based music into jazz and vice versa. We like that because it stretches us to think in terms of improvisation so it will be a work that is evolving. It’s very gratifying and terrifying because they [the orchestra members] usually have a sheet of music in front of them.”
With Blade’s recent appearance at the knockout tribute to Vidacovich at the Best of the Beat Awards and these two upcoming performances, now seemed the right time to do a little catching up with the drum master about being back in Louisiana and a few of his many experiences since he left decades ago.
Now that you’ve returned to Shreveport, do you play in church as you did in your youth?
Always, whenever I’m home and not on the road. Every Wednesday and Sunday I’m back in the seat I was in when I was 13. It’s a different church building but the same congregation. My dad is still the pastor [at Zion Baptist Church]—54 years now I think. It’s incredible. Ever since I left at 17, it turned into playing maybe on Easter or that annual visit at Christmas. It got to be too little. I was getting older and folks were getting older. Thankfully that thread is unbroken. I’m so grateful for that. It’s great to restore.
How did playing drums in church influence you?
It just gave me the hearing and the listening. These singers were so great but they weren’t professionals so to speak. They were neighborhood people and they just wanted to give God praise. If they would move in a certain way that didn’t necessarily follow some harmonic progression you didn’t run past what was being sung. You stayed there because they are delivering something for you to hear. It heightened my sensitivity to that movement and hopefully strengthened my own musical flow.
How important is your spiritual background in your career as a musician? Even the name of your band, the Fellowship, seems to reflect a certain humanity.
It’s the bedrock really that holds everything up. This is praise for me—the music, the sound itself. It’s the gift you’ve been given being turned back towards whoever is there to receive it.
The band name represents that in some holistic way but it also really is born from my friendship with [pianist] Jon Cowherd who I met in 1988 when I moved to New Orleans to study at Loyola. Then a year later, [bassist] Chris Thomas moved to New Orleans to study with Mr. Marsalis at the University of New Orleans. Years passed and I met [saxophonists] Myron Walden and Melvin Butler [in New York]. Everything started coming into focus and I said, ‘Okay, I want to build something with these guys.’ In 1997 we recorded our first album and we’ve been able to stay together. It’s a gift.
As a composer does spirituality enter the way you write?
Yes, absolutely. It all kind of wells up from my spirit—my spirit man so to speak. That’s true inspiration and then the spark of joy that comes with finding a sound and knowing that this writing, this melody is for Myron or Melvin or Chris or Jon. It all sort of mixes together all at once during the composing—imagining how they are going to bring something dormant on paper to life.
Your appearances here—with the Fellowship/Symphony collaboration and guitarist Davy Mooney—will be stylistically very different. Does that change your approach?
The situation and music dictates how I act and react and it’s never the same. I’m still me somehow and hopefully I’m bringing what’s needed to the situation. There’s no automatic pilot. I can’t go like, ‘This is my thing.’ I hate that mentality. I’d like to almost be broken and start from zero and not know what I’m doing—not relying on my chops or whatever is a default setting in a mindset that keeps you from not reaching for something. When I play with people I want to serve the song. I want to serve the mission and make it go higher and reach people with what I’m doing and what we’re trying to do together.
What has your experience been like performing with the legendary saxophonist Wayne Shorter?
He’s such an original, man. He’s so unique. There are some good songs and good solos and good records and then there’s this other level when you start using that word genius. With Wayne, I just have to say he’s so genius and such a gas. The light is on through it all. He’s walking in his purpose in such a beautiful way. He’s not resting on what he did yesterday or 30 years ago, he’s like, ‘Okay, what can we create right now together?’ So he’s instilled this in myself and [bassist] John Patitucci and [pianist] Danilo Pérez and shared it with us for the last 17 years.
He represents a lot of what I grew up with and my respect for elders who had wisdom—you just knew it. And there was this ‘fear not’ about them. That’s what Wayne placed inside our hearts. So I try to take it back to the Fellowship Band and to every situation that I’m a part of. Hopefully there’s that spirit of taking a chance.
Considering his stature, were you nervous the first time you played with Wayne?
Yes, absolutely. Initially, we didn’t know if we were making something together or we were off the tracks. It took a while for us to really come into what his vision was for this collective composition that he wanted to be a part of and seeing it unfold with us. Once we got a little bit of a clue and stepped into that confidence, and realized, ‘Okay he may be silent for a while but he’s giving a lot to the process even in his silence.’ He puts the spire on the building.
You came to New Orleans to study with Johnny Vidacovich. What did you learn about the city itself?
New Orleans is its own country. It’s just where so many cultural crosses meet. That mixing and mingling and that beat on the street is what makes life have that joy. A different influx of spirit comes in and you step into it and you feel it immediately. It changes the way you look at things and feel things in a great way. The time that I spent there was a very special time in my life. I was just supposed to have been there. Now it’s in everything that I play and write. I may not even realize it. There are pieces of it that manifest themselves. I might hear a song we recorded five years ago and think, ‘Oh, wow, that’s just a second line really!’