Thursday, April 04, 2013

Another Brian Blade performance

Since I've established a precedent of writing about it when I see Brian Blade play, I should write something feeble about last night's show. Blade was playing with the guitarist/composer Joel Harrison, in a pretty all-star group including trumpet player Cuong Vu and bassist Kermit Driscoll, and bassoonist Paul Hanson. The band had mostly just met each other a few days earlier, and was playing very hard music. Sitting in the little balcony at Mississippi Studios, the sound was about one million times better than the last time I saw him play.

So, a few hastily-written impressions. I can't promise I didn't miss the big lessons of the performance (they're probably unwritable, anyway), or misapprehend what was really going on, but we have to start somewhere:

Everything he plays has dynamic shape; everything goes somewhere, usually in a way you can't miss. He shapes his lines dramatically, even while staying at a very low volume.

Most of his playing occurred in the pp-mf range— in a zone of very low stick heights for the drumset— and he appeared to be very comfortable expressing the music at that level.  The bigger, more dramatic stuff, in the zone Blade is famous for, was very occasional; the group wasn't quite at an Inglourious Basterds-level  build up : actual action ratio, but they were getting there.

He is a master at following a soloist's line.

Absolute confidence in the other players, that the time and the form will be there no matter what he does. I wonder how he would play with weaker musicians; you would think he would have to play more straightforwardly for them, but you also suspect he does his thing so well that he induces people to play far above their normal level, and that they will be able to play with him in spite of themselves.

He always seems to have a higher gear.

He has a right hand worthy of some of the Brazilian players I've been listening to— capable of playing very fast, very soft 8th notes.

Very little repetition. Gives the impression of very little straight functional drumming; plays his functional things in a fractured way— I want to say “displaced”, but that conjures up an area of drummer-jive that was not at all present in the performance. Let's say he moves things around from where you expect them to be, while still maintaining the feel. Plays more in terms of lines and colors.

Very post-Tony Williams— 60's Tony Williams. Very much in the “jazz percussion” mode I've talked about before— I've nibbled at the edges of understanding it, anyway.

He pays attention to sound, drawing a lot of different timbres out of the instrument.

When he needs to switch sticks during a song, he lays the unused set across his lap. Never used brushes, did use mallets.

He used some interesting— sticks, I guess?— possibly home made. They appeared to be sticks fully wrapped in soft material, with some padding. Laid a cloth across his floor tom during one tune.

Comping instruments should not jump on the drummer's rhythm when the drummer does a cross-rhythm; we've all heard it done a thousand times, to the point that we think it's good, but it isn't. It's a pretty crass form of playing for effect; an easy, highly abused device for giving the audience some tension and release. Still, a lot of very good players do it, and last night there seemed to be a couple of instances where the guitar Mickey Moused (that's Peter Erskine's term for it) Blade's cross-rhythm during a big crescendo, and Blade pulled away, declining to make the easy payoff.

Nothing to to with Blade, but Kermit Driscoll is an incredible musician.


Anonymous said...

Feeble? Hardly. What an inspiring and instructive write-up for a drum student (meaning, me) on what to aim-for in the art form. Thank you!

-David Hurd

(I'll be seeing the group in Mill Valley, CA this Sat. And, by the way, used to play guitar in a frat band at Cal-Berkeley with the bassoonist, Paul Hanson, 35 years ago.)

Stephen W said...

A very interesting post - but, sorry to sound uneducated, but what exactly is a 'cross-rhythm' in this context?

Todd Bishop said...

Well, thanks David, I'm glad it worked for you-- I'm frankly scared to go back and read what I wrote. I just assume that everything I've done in the past is going to be a big embarrassment in the present. I've updated the text to include Hanson's name, so thanks for that. He was quite an incredible player-- the part about Blade following the soloist's line was in reference to a duo section between those two. Just great playing there. Enjoy the California show-- they were great last night, but they should really be smoking the material by then!

Stephen-- Thanks for the question-- a common example of what I'm talking about there would be during a tune in 4/4, a soloist or the drummer emphasizes running dotted quarter notes (or rhythms based on them) for several measures, leading up to a big resolution on 1 of the next section.

Stephen W said...

Thanks for the explanation - I had a feeling it meant that, but didn't know that it had a descriptor, as it were. Many thanks.

Anonymous said...

I'm a bit jealous....I saw cuong vu play years ago...amazing tone and I love his use of effects.

Really nice insightful comments about Brian blade. Your point about everything having a dynamic shape is spot on...I hadn't thought of it like that before, but it helps explain how he can play with such intensity and forward motion even at low volumes.

Anyways, These kinds of short observations are really helpful in understanding certain drummers' styles, for me. I've been trying to get Brian Blade's playing for years. Drummers like him or even Jim Black can use such varied language, it's hard to get a grasp on how to conceptualise the playing.

Thanks for writing my favourite drumming blog!