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What Color is Music?

On a late June afternoon I went to Catalina’s in Los Angeles to interview jazz drummer Brian Blade. I got there at 5:30 and things didn’t start off well. The guitar player was playing scales really loud (this gets quite annoying after fifteen minutes) and, when I sought refuge in the restroom, I ran into the alto player, who was bouncing his scales off the cool white tiles. On top of that, the club manager wanted to know what I was doing there at all.


Then Brian showed up. He’s a young black guy from Shreveport who’s played with Sting, McCoy Tyner, and Joni Mitchell and has two excellent albums of his own on Blue Note. He sought me out (not that he knew me) and, as soon as I introduced him to drummer Michael Sulcer of K-Ci and JoJo’s touring band, he practically leaped into his arms to hug him as he said, “ I really want to come out and hear you guys play!” Everything was fine after that.


The Brian Blade Fellowship included New Orleans pedal steel player Dave Easley, who adds both textures and intense guitar hero solos (as heroic as a guy can look seated with his hands wired to a stove). So I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised that when Steve Earle’s name came up during the interview, Brian banged the table and exclaimed excitedly, “I know him! My brother used to play drums with him.” This led to a long conversation about country music in general and pedal steel players in particular (Santo and Johnny, the sacred steel players in Florida , Waylon Jennings’ Ralph Mooney). Why pedal steel? “Well, I write on guitar,” Blade replied. “I hear things through strings.”


While Blade’s musical heroes seem to be mostly rockers (Neil Young, above all) his band plays fiery sax/guitar centered jazz that, at its best, approaches Coltrane in its level of spiritual searching and celebration. The drummer’s own searching has led to great empathy with the poor, to the point that he can even question his choice of vocation: “In a way the music almost takes a backseat to the larger issues such as ‘Do I have a place to sleep tonight?’ It puts me at the crossroads sometimes and makes me wonder if what I’m doing is selfish.  But then I back up and think: ‘OK, I want to offer myself as much as I can in my music. This is what I have.’”


The world would be much poorer without it.



Rock & Rap Confidential / 2000

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