In jazz, this is the era of the drummer. On a scene largely defined by the proliferation of creatively ambitious trap set experts, every year seems to bring a new crop of gifted rhythmic explorers. While steeped in jazz history, many of these musicians rove freely across stylistic frontiers, drawing from gospel, funk, folk, Balkan, Cuban and other deep musical wells.
Over the next month, three drummer/bandleaders who've forged highly personal group sounds from myriad musical sources perform in the Los Angeles area. While sounding nothing alike, Brian Blade, Steve Smith and Allison Miller all embody the way that drummers are directing jazz's evolution.
Blade has spent the past decade driving saxophonist/composer Wayne Shorter's quartet, jazz's most formidable foursome. Since the Louisiana native first broke onto the national scene with Joshua Redman in the mid-1990s, he's been sought by such luminaries as Pat Metheny, Billy Childs and Bill Frisell.
What sets Blade apart from his peers is that he's also toured and recorded with Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris and Joni Mitchell, who paid the drummer the ultimate compliment by contributing a ravishing vocal track on his Fellowship band's 2000 album "Perceptual" (Blue Note). Inspired by Mitchell's soul-baring songs, Blade brings all of his various experiences to bear in the Fellowship, a sextet with a book of soaring, gospel-tinged anthems.
"I wasn't aware of it, but maybe there's this cumulative preparatory school that's at work," said Blade, 40, after a recent Oakland performance with Chick Corea. "The influence of Joni and Bob's music is so profound, and I want our music to have that urgency and clarity. I don't look down on playing songs. It can be as urgent and passionate as playing something extemporaneous and unscripted."
Blade started his musical career in the Zion Baptist Church where his father was a minister in Shreveport. After studying violin for several years, he took over the drum chair in church band at 13, when his older brother went away to college. The experience still resonates in his music. "In hindsight, I realize that playing in church taught me the essentials of being part of a group, and how to return your gift submitting yourself to a group's requirements," Blade said.
After playing music ranging from thrash to funk in high school, he turned on to John Coltrane. While attending Loyola University in New Orleans, Blade hooked up with a group of young musicians who shared his passion for improvisation, including pianist/keyboardist Jon Cowherd, trumpeter Nicholas Payton and pianist Peter Martin.
Blade broke into rock's upper echelon when Iggy Pop happened into a New Orleans nightclub where he was performing. Iggy raved about the drummer to singer-songwriter Daniel Lanois, and after a jam session encounter Blade landed a four-month gig with the Grammy Award-winning producer. He quickly became a first-call cat for Lanois' studio projects, appearing on Harris' "Wrecking Ball" and Dylan's "Time Out of Mind."
Lanois produced the 1998 debut "Brian Blade Fellowship" (Blue Note), but Blade and Cowherd have produced the group's subsequent releases, most recently 2008's "Season of Changes" (Verve). While the band reflects Blade's embracing musical vision, as a bandleader he expects his bandmates to share responsibility for shaping each tune.
"What it boils down to is that I'm the drummer, and maybe I'm making some arrangements, but we've got the trust to make a collective cry," Blade said. "I acknowledge my influences, the elders and forefathers who created the music: Art Blakey, Papa Jo Jones, Chick Webb, Art Taylor, Jimmy Cobb, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams. I'm walking in this line and trying to lift up the tradition while being true to myself and what I hear."
Drummer Steve Smith's took a very different path to a similar point of view. While he started his career as a hard-swinging jazz musician in Boston, the rock world knows Smith best as the drummer who powered Journey during the band's hit-making heyday. Since the mid-1980s, he's concentrated on fusion outfits like his gritty band Vital Information. At the same time, he's the primary keeper of drum legend Buddy Rich's legacy.
Rather than resting on his daunting pile of laurels (he won top honors from Modern Drummer so often that the magazine took him out of contention), Smith has spent the past decade immersing himself in the world's other great improvisational tradition: classical Indian music.
A chance gig with a tabla player in 2001 sparked Smith's interest in South Indian culture, and he began applying the Carnatic rhythmic philosophy to the trap set while also developing his skills in konakol, or vocal percussion. When tenor saxophonist George Brooks recruited Smith for his Indo-jazz supergroup Summit in 2003, he provided the drummer with the invaluable opportunity of working regularly with tabla maestro Zakir Hussain. ("Steve is an incredible drummer, one of the most sensitive drummers I've seen," Hussain said.)
Smith started collaborating with guitarist Prasanna, who divides his time between the southern Indian city of Chennai (formerly Madras) and Boston, in 2004 as a duo playing classical recitals. Adding Brooks as a third voice, they formed the Raga Bop Trio and released an eponymous debut album on Abstract Logix in July.
"Prasanna heard that I was a Western drummer comfortable with Indian rhythms," said Smith, 56, from his Marin County home studio. "Bringing George into the mix was natural. He's steeped in North India's Hindustani tradition, and we all love rock, funk and Afro-Caribbean rhythms. It's kind of an embarrassment of riches."
In much the same way that Smith bridged musical worlds in the 1980s, drummer Allison Miller is leading a double musical life, touring and recording with charismatic singer-songwriters Ani DiFranco, Brandi Carlile and Erin McKeown, while also working regularly with jazz greats such as organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, reed master Marty Ehrlich and trumpeter Steven Bernstein.
Featured prominently on "The L Word," Miller's music has attained new depth and power with Boom Tic Boom, an all-star quartet. Though not initially inclined to lead her own band, Miller found that she needed a well-defined home for her rapidly evolving compositional sensibility.
"Leading the band is creating a palette to get that music out there," said Miller, 36. "It's funny, I write at the piano and the last thing I think about is the drum part. I'd write the music, find the right players, get on the bandstand and go, 'Oh my God, what do I do now?' This is the perfect band. I love the way each player takes my simple melodies and brings them to life."