The following article is from the Oregonian, reposted here with original links.
by Marty Hughley
November 1, 2010, 5:00am
Drummer Brian Blade travels the world. But when he’s not in New York, Los Angeles or the great cities of Europe playing with some of the most famous musicians in the world, you might find him on the Burnside Bridge.
“As I do wherever I go, I walk, I drift, I move around and just try to pick up a sense of the place and the people,” he says, on the phone recently from Zurich. “So in my walking, maybe back and forth across the Burnside Bridge, I’d have talks with people. And they stuck with me.”
Blade, a Shreveport, La., native who has played with the likes of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Joshua Redman, Bill Frisell, Norah Jones and the Wayne Shorter Quartet, has found something of a home away from home in Portland in recent years, recording and performing with Darrell Grant or working on his own records at the home studio of his friend Tucker Martine.
Many of those talks he had on the Burnside Bridge were with the city’s homeless. Blade says those conversations inspired Music for the Mission, a pair of concerts this week to benefit the Portland Rescue Mission. Wednesday’s show at the Crystal Ballroom stars Emmylou Harris, backed by a stellar band including Blade, guitarist Daniel Lanois, multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz and bassist Chris Thomas. Blade plays again on Saturday at the Bagdad Theater as part of the Fellowship Band (whose albums have been released under the name the Brian Blade Fellowship), with Darrell Grant opening the show.
“When Brian first came to Portland, I think he just made a connection with the Mission through seeing the lines outside,” says Tim Ortlieb, a friend of Blade’s who lives in Mount Hood and has helped organize this week’s concerts. “Walk around with him and he’s always speaking to a homeless person, offering change. It’s something that’s really close to him.”
Blade, 40, relates it to his upbringing as the son of a Baptist pastor and a kindergarten teacher.
“Maybe it’s that I’m getting on in years, but I look at my mother and father, at their steadfastness in life, and I wonder if I have any of that in me. That knocking just kept coming — the conversations I had. I had to move on them.”
About six months ago, Blade and Ortlieb met with Bill Miller, the Mission’s director of development ministry, and learned more about the organization. Blade wanted to know how it operated, how many beds it provided, what kind of programs it ran.
“We both came out of that meeting really moved and committed to doing something,” Ortlieb says. They were particularly affected to learn of the growing population of homeless mothers, who often go sleepless at night to make sure their children are safe, yet must provide for them by day as well.
“They’re a helpful resource to people who’ve lost a lot, not only out of poor choices and addiction, but those who’ve lost their homes because of the recession,” Ortlieb says.
“I had to ask myself: ‘What ability do I have to be a part of it?'” Blade says. “The music, it’s a gift, and I’m so thankful for what I do. But it sometimes seems self-serving. … Yet it’s given me these wonderful friends who, at merely my asking, are willing to come and help me shine a light on Portland Rescue Mission.”
Those friends are an impressive lot. Harris, whose style has developed over the years from crystalline country into something beyond category, is one of the music world’s great treasures. Blade says she has “the voice of an angel and the heart of one as well.” Blade calls Lanois, known for his own mysteriously swampy music and production work for U2 and others, “not just a hero to me, but a true friend and comrade.” And there’s Portland’s own Grant, “the go-to guard” in Blade’s description. The other members of the Fellowship Band — pianist Jon Cowherd, bassist Chris Thomas, guitarist Jeff Parker, saxophonists Melvin Butler and Myron Walden — play with a combination of grace, passion and intuition as well.
And it’d be silly for anyone other than Blade — who is relentlessly humble — to deny what a singularly magnificent musician he is.
“He walks on that rarified landscape where expression flows with such beauty and joy that you stop thinking about the instrument he’s playing, and the pure spirit of the music is what reaches you.” That’s Blade talking about one of his heroes and former teachers, the great (and woefully under-recognized) New Orleans drummer Johnny Vidacovich. But the same statement could be applied to Blade, whether he’s fueling the wide-open, nether-reaches exploration of Shorter’s quartet or providing sympathetic support to a singer-songwriter.
“I’m trying to serve the song; it really boils down to that,” he says. “That’s a bedrock that came to me early, playing in church. … You try to cultivate a certain attentiveness to the moment and finding a certain praise in the sound. And that’s the same no matter what you’re playing. When I’m listening to Bob Dylan sing ‘It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there,’ I’m really feeling that. And I want there to be a rhythmic mirror to that lyric. When I’m playing with Wayne Shorter, within every note there’s a sense of the totality of the man’s life. And I have to try to bring some equivalent of that to what I play.”
Steven Cantor, host of the KMHD (89.1) radio show “Beats and Pieces,” recalls the first time he spoke with Blade, after a show with the guitarist Bill Frisell at the Aladdin Theater. “I didn’t want to say anything stupid or just the standard, ‘Wow, man, you were great.’ What I wound up saying, without having really thought about it, was, ‘I wish I could live the way you play.'”
If you’ve ever heard the skill, grace, ferocity, freedom, responsiveness, sensitivity and creativity of Brian Blade at a drum kit, that might seem like an extravagant wish. But with these concerts and the cause behind them, Blade offers us a useful example of that spirit in action.
“The music is going to be our conduit,” he says, “but we’re trying to point everyone toward the Mission.”