Jazz drumming legend Brian Blade still inspiring, still seeking inspiration

Artists, true artists, not only inspire, but should be inspired.

Always. Continuously.

And their need to create, to collaborate, should be fed by that, driven by that and enriched by that, in turn informing their art and, as a result, inspiring us further.

It’s a cycle.

Not surprisingly, a conversation with contemporary American jazz legend Brian Blade sees the warm and, frankly, lovely man using the word frequently and in many different forms.

Inspired. Inspiring. Inspirational.

The words come out of him naturally, believably and earnestly.

The first instance is early. The veteran drummer, composer and band leader is relating his morning, which has been spent writing for a new album, what will likely be the followup to his 2009 singer-songwriter album Mama Rosa.

“It’s always inspiring to be in the process,” Blade says and laughs. “Great to get to the end of it, too, but good just to be in it, to try and discover some things, hopefully get there.”

Assuredly he will.

Just as the 46-year-old Shreveport, Louisiana native has done for most of his jaw-droppingly diverse career. It’s one that has seen him perform as a sideman for such luminaries as Joshua Redman and Wayne Shorter, lend his skills as a session player for everyone from Norah Jones, Brad Mehldau and Chick Corea — Blade earned his first Grammy in 2015 playing on Corea’s Trilogy release — to Daniel Lanois, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Iron & Wine and Bob Dylan.

He also, of course, does his own thing, which includes with his most notable project The Fellowship Band. 

That act has been taking up a great deal of his focus lately, with them having just put the finishing touches on a new record and getting set for an upcoming concert in the city he considers his second home and musical training grounds, New Orleans, where they’ll play at Loyola University with the school’s orchestra.

“We’re all really inspired — I am — to do this and to find new territory,” he says of working for the first time in an symphonic setting.

“It’s like coming to play Calgary at Mount Royal. There’s still some firsts in life.”

Again, the fact that the man finds something inherently exciting about returning to Calgary and performing for the first time at the relatively new Bella Concert Hall speaks to his mindset as a man and an artist.

The Sunday night performance by Blade and his Fellowship Band is part of a stellar and, yes, inspiring, weekend for jazz lovers at MRU. It’s preceded by a Saturday night concert as part of JazzYYC’s Illumin8 series, which will feature a quartet led by Vancouver’s Cory Weeds, with special guest, NYC jazz legend Harold Mabern on piano, at the TransAlta Pavilion of the Taylor Centre.

Blade promises that they’ll preview some new material from his quintet’s freshly finished new one — expected to be released this spring — and followup to 2014’s acclaimed Landmarks album, which they’ll also showcase some compositions from.

Again, they’re all just chapters in what has already been a remarkably rich, eclectic and, for artist and listener alike, rewarding life and career that have kept that aforementioned cycle alive, almost from that first moment he picked up the violin as a child, soon gravitating towards the sticks and skins with which he has made his biggest bang, lasting impression and greatest influence.

Blade acknowledges that all that has come his way is something he never could have dreamed of.

“I’m thankful for it. I can’t say that I ever dreamt of all the incredible blessings and opportunities that have come my way through a dear friend like Daniel, who’s been such an inspiration and champion in my life,” he says of the Canadian producer and musician Lanois, who has included him on several projects.

“And having listened to the Miles Davis Quartet and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and then buying JuJu and realizing, ‘Oh, OK, Wayne Shorter, he’s the thread through all of these records,’ and then all of a sudden to be playing music with the man for 17 years, I could have never, ever imagined.

“I’m just thankful and I just try and be in the moment with every situation that comes, and hopefully I can deliver what’s needed, and go onto the next one.”

As to what he thinks it is about him that attracts such an incredible amount of remarkable situations, Blade defers, at first, as expected, merely noting that he enters every project open-minded and ready to simply serve the song, the work, however best he can.

And when pressed about what he looks for when he chooses the projects he does, puts himself in those situations, the artist pauses thoughtfully.

“I’m not sure. I feel like it’s kind of a small world and the invitations that have come … and I guess it’s just the spirit that says, ‘Yes, this is something.’ Even if I don’t know the person. But most times there’s always a few degrees of separation between people … even if you haven’t met them but you’ve heard their music or they could be completely new to your world — and I welcome that as well. 

“And hopefully I make the right choices, to commit to something and be the best I can for it. It’s so rare that I’ve been in a situation where I felt like, ‘Oh, gosh, someone else should be here to make this right.’ But you learn from the great experiences and the not-so great experiences as well.”

When asked to name some of those not-so great experiences, Blade gives a generous laugh.

“No, I can’t do that,” he says, before understandably deflecting. “I say that to contrast the overwhelming openness and sharing that I normally encounter whenever I’m in a situation where there’s this unspoken hookup on every level …”

He points to his frequent work with Canadian icon Joni Mitchell, with whom he recorded a trio of albums — three of the Alberta-born singer’s last four studio releases — and who he calls “one of my greatest inspirations.”

And, not surprisingly, he also points to the sessions in Miami that produced one of Bob Dylan’s many classics, 1997’s brilliant Time Out of Mind. Brought into the proceedings by his friend and the album’s producer Lanois, Blade has nothing but fond recollections of the entire experience in the studio, and with that artist and the others assembled.

“Just seeing how everyone submitted themselves to what Bob was after. And even Bob, to the music, to the muse, himself, with all of the obvious thought and perfection that went into the poetry on the page, there was still the song to find together. And he was just as much asking and searching for that, too. So it was great to see that …

“He’s asking, ‘Well, what do you think?’”

Blade laughs. “ And I was like, ‘Well, I don’t know, Bob. Let’s try another one.’ 

“To have one of your heroes ask what you think, it’s an honour to know that there’s a reason why we have such high regard for these people because they let you in on it and they want to make it together with you. It’s not like he needs me or I need to be there, but, thank God I was, and hopefully part of something that was great.”

He was. 

Inspired. Inspiring. Inspirational.

And the cycle continues …

Brian Blade and The Fellowship Band perform Sunday night at the Bella Concert Hall at Mount Royal University. For tickets and more information click here.

Mike Bell has been covering the Calgary music scene for the past 25 years with publications such as VOX, Fast Forward, the Calgary Sun and, most recently, the Calgary Herald. He is currently the music writer and content editor for, and the co-host of the show Saved By the Bell, which airs Wednesdays from 4-6 p.m. on CJSW 90.9 FM. He likes beer. Buy him one. Follow him at Twitter/@mrbell_23 and email him at