Brian Blade on the history of the Fellowship Band and working with Daniel Lanois

Having established himself as an in-demand drummer in both jazz and rock circles by working with everyone from Wayne Shorter and Bill Frisell to Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, Brian Blade is also a strong leader in his own right -- namely, with his Fellowship Band, which will be at Dazzle tonight and tomorrow night.

From a self-titled Blue Note release in 1998 through later records such as Perceptual and Season of Changes, Fellowship albums have always straddled the rock and jazz worlds, especially the Blade-penned cuts that reflect his understated drumming style, which can also also be quite fierce at times. The Louisiana-born Blade has used these albums not only as vehicles to flex his versatile drum chops, but also to showcase some stunning original compositions.

Joining Blade on these two dates will be pianist Jon Cowherd, saxophonists Myron Walden and Melvin Butler, and bassist Christopher Thomas. We caught up with Blade to talk about the history of the Fellowship Band, what he learned from working from Daniel Lanois and performing with Bill Frisell and Ron Miles.

Westword: When you first started the Fellowship band, how did you decide on the instrumentation of the band?

Brian Blade: The genesis of the band was born about ten years before our first record. I met in Jon Cowherd in 1988, when I moved to New Orleans to attend Loyola University, where he had already been for about a year. Jon was already composing and a real inspiration to me, as he still is. Chris Thomas moved to New Orleans a year later, and we met, and we all just became close.

It wasn't until '96 and '97 when I moved to New York and I met Melvin Butler and Myron Walden and I started composing in the mid to late '90s. Once I kind of had a vision of this group, it came in focus as to who I was writing for. It all just sort of converged at the same time, well, starting ten years earlier, obviously. But we came together pretty quickly once I heard all these voices then I thought I was really writing for these people.

Has that been the case with all three of the Fellowship albums? You're writing with them in mind?

Exactly. I definitely hear their voices when I write. I write at the guitar and Jon writes at the piano, but because of our relationship everything seems to exist in a cohesive way when we sort of come from our neutral corners to present the music for the band. We're both just writing for each other and writing for the collective voice that makes up the Fellowship Band. It's great to have that trust and to know that these notes on paper that can sometimes be dormant that they come alive when I hear Melvin or I hear Byron or Jon play.

How would you describe the music the Fellowship Band? Obviously, it has its jazz roots but it drifts off into other areas as well.

Yeah. Well, I guess sources of inspiration - John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Joni Mitchell - they sort of filter through our writing and our personal experiences, being where we're from -- Jon from Kentucky and myself from Louisiana -- and all the time we spent in New Orleans. Then all of that influence sort of goes into the distillation. I guess from all that there's this chunk of America. I guess it's really hard to put a name above it, but in the improvisatory we all have jazz seems to fit it, but obviously there are somewhat folk song-y, somewhat roots music as well.

I know you're good friends with Daniel Lanois. Was he a big inspiration with the Fellowship?

Absolutely. He's probably the main reason I started playing guitar. I never really had a connection with the piano, but when I met Daniel in the early-'90s all of the sudden I was around him so much and he's obviously such an inspiration. So I found a connection through the guitar through him. I started composing and I guess there's some of him in the music as well.

What did you learn from being around him?

Well, I suppose something he would call spotting. How to be able to recognize - not to presume that everything that comes out is great - but to know when you've found a melody that touches you and to be able to develop it and make it a song. He's obviously a master at that for himself and for others. So I've been trying to cultivate that myself ever since I started to write.

You've played with some heavy hitters -- everyone from Wayne Shorter to Joni Mitchell -- how do find it having one foot in the jazz world and one a more pop and rock world? Or is it all just music?

It definitely is all music to me I think primarily because of my roots and how I grew up. I started playing drums in church. So in that environment of praise, you know, hopefully it strips away any self-consciousness and it presents a greater submission, if you will, to the wholeness of a situation. It kind of becomes all about serving the song. So that's what I feel we're able to do with the Fellowship Band collectively.

Have you guys been working on new material with the Fellowship Band?

Absolutely. Jon's always writing. I'm always writing. So we'll be playing some new music in Denver at Dazzle. We have a few records waiting to be released hopefully early next year.

Dave Easley was on pedal steel on the first two Fellowship albums and I thought he added a really cool element to the band. I was curious why he wasn't in the group any more.

Dave was already very busy when we met him and started playing. So as we began touring much more it was just not so possible to have him unfortunately. I think he's a genius. His voice on that instrument and the way he improvises is something I still want to include in our music. So hopefully we'll come back together at some point.

I saw you play with Bill Frisell and Ron Miles last year at Dazzle. The two of them played a gig about a month ago and when I talked to Bill after the show, he mentioned something about the three of you making a record.

Yeah, we're coming back to Denver later on this month.

How did you like playing with those guys?

I loved it. Two of my heroes. Just so creative and so unique, both of their personalities, the music that they make just reflects who they are. It's a joy for me to be able to share that creative process with them.

It seems like you three all have similar sensibilities, kind of understated ways of going at it.

With Ron and Bill there's obviously a great sensitivity and attention paid to detail but also simultaneously this fearlessness and chance taking that makes it always interesting. So it's great to be able to feel like, "Oh, I get this. I understand where they're coming from." You don't have to talk about approach or calculate something. It's like the music reveals the direction.

How would you say your drumming style has evolved over the years?

Hopefully I'm become more and more attentive to the moment. It's something that I always want to be conscious of while making music that hopefully I'm not - not so much that you can never turn off thoughts - but that I'm not thinking in the foreground. The wheels are turning in an action-reaction sort of way so that I can always be true to what I hear right then and there and not impose something predetermined into a situation.

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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon