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Northern Heads: Wil Blades/ Billy Martin interview (Shimmy)


Wil Blades/ Billy Martin interview (Shimmy)

(l to r) Wil Blades and Billy Martin
On one level it sounds like dogged persistence paid off.  Billy Martin is in San Fransisco doing a drum clinic, the young organist Wil Blades whose built a name for himself at the Boom Boom Room thinks he can swing a duo money gig together, presses the manager, and apparently he passes the muster. "We just got up there and played, there was no preparation we didn't really have time for any of that with Billy coming in to do these clinics there just wasn't any time.  So we basically did a quick soundcheck got up there and played.  And that's basically been our whole thing ever since," recounts Blades from his San Fransico home.

What is thought of as their first gig was actually their second, a late night gig, at the Blue Nile in New Orleans during the annual pilgrimage- the NOLA Jazz and Heritage Festival. "That was the gig that really made us be like 'wow this is cool we should do something with this'... It was just easy, there was an audience there they were supportive from the first note everything felt good all the way to the end.  The audience was really into it and you know it felt good which is the most important thing it just felt good which is more important than music being perfect."

Something about the chemistry of the two players spoke to everyone involved.  "We listen. Our ears are wide open and we have a conversation that leaves each player some time to make a statement. In large part, that's what makes our music so appealing," says Martin

How the 33 year old organist, who for reference sake was seventeen and graduating high school when Medeski, Martin & Wood's Shackman was released, found himself possessed of such a unique talent on the Hammond B3 organ that the proposition engaged Martin is a story worth exploring.  "He'll be the first person to tell you, the last thing on his mind was to start another project with an organ player."  For his part Martin freely admits "the chemistry was undeniable. It was something fresh I had not experienced with anyone else. I wasn't looking to play with another organist, but it really is special the way we play together on the stage. It couldn't be denied and when that happened I had no choice but do dive in!"

Blades spent his formative years in Chicago picking up drums at 8, guitar at 13 and getting into pretty typical early nineties fair which he was learning on guitar. As he got a little older he noticed all the bands he was getting into Hendrix, The Doors, Pink Floyd, Santana all had one thing in common.  "The sound of the organ started to pique my interest.... I actually can pinpoint the first time I really recognized I thought the organ was a great sound.  We would do these gigs in church basements, I think I was playing drums and he was playing keys and he put on the organ and I was like 'yeah that's the sound for me'. I really can remember that moment."

The instrument stayed on his radar and his fascination grew from the Hammond to the Leslie speaker that brings it to life. "It sort of throws the sound around the room so it's not such a static, dry sound. You get this real dramatic tremolo effect".  A senior in high school "I saved up money, this is like some classic storybook stuff, I saved up some money from painting a fence that summer. I got it in my head that I was going to buy a Hammond organ so I was able to buy a Spinet which is a smaller cheaper version of a B3, I found a place in Chicago that had 'em. So I put it in my basement and I kind of fiddled with it at this point my senior year I was getting more into jazz like Jimmy Smith and Medeski, Martin & Wood. Which is the first time I'm hearing Billy too which is funny enough."

A music education and the west coast came calling at a very small music college when a storied sideman and instructor Herbie Lewis wanted to see more progress on one instrument than the three (drums, guitar and organ) he was practicing.  "He pretty much gave me an ultimatum to pick one so without even hesitating I picked organ and I think to this day that was the best decision I could have made musically and career wise."

Presenting himself no doubt as a green, overeager and accomplished young player he "started playing at this club in San Francisco at the Boom Boom Room, it was a blues club it was a real deal blues club and I was playing with these older guys Oscar Mayer's Blues Beat.  All the guys in the band were seasoned guys who'd played in blues bands and R&B bands all their life and I was just this white kid trying to hang with them and for some reason Oscar decided he liked me and took me under his wing and that band- that was the other half of my learning education, my music education.  And it was a really old school way of learning."

Blades is clearly an ambassador of both his instrument but also the jazz organ tradition he finds himself on the vanguard of.  "Without even knowing it I got this real old school education, and without even knowing it that was instilled in me this kind of traditional carrying through.  It's not that those guys wanted me to play traditionally it's that they kind of let me in this lineage that they were a part of.... Even though I don't want to be playing necessarily traditionally you can't take it out of me."

This is in let's call them the early days of the internet.  There was no youtube to look up a clip and see what someone was doing with their hands.  There was no way to learn other than in the voracious listening and the doing.  Blades- who'd made a probing study of the instrument began an exhaustive exporation of it's heritage.
 "I really just had to figure it out on my own I listened and played along with alot of Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Richard 'Groove' Holmes, Shirley Scott records."  Of Jimmy Smith - whom he describes rightly as 'the Charlie Parker of the instrument'- he is unabashed about how deeply he and all organists after him are both in the thrall of and under the tyranny of his influence.

Jimmy Smith
"He revolutionized the instrument and everyone to follow is really pretty much stuck under his umbrella. I mean it's insane how much vocabulary that man came up with on the organ it's impossible to play the Hammond without referencing him... What he brought to it, well let me start with what was happening before him was Wild Bill Davis and Milt Buckner guys who played more swing style organ, big block chords and lot's of vibrato.  Wild Bill Davis specifically was doing big band arrangements on the organ and that's how the organ combo thing started is it was this way of getting the sound of a whole orchestra with like three or four guys usually guitar, drums and sax.  And so club owners wouldn't have to pay a sixteen piece band they'd pay a quartet or a trio to basically emulate that.

So when Jimmy Smith came along he was really influenced by Wild Bill Davis especially if you listened to his first recordings you can really hear the direct lineage.  But what Jimmy Smith did was he took that and applied all the Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell you know he was a bebop guy, blues and bebop guy.  So he was playing the bass lines and playing all this bebop stuff and he was unreal, he was amazing. Miles Davis was quoted as saying he was the '8th Wonder of the World'.  He was really an unbelievable musician...  So he really just permeates you as an organ player he created a whole language just like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonius Monk and these guys created with bebop, Jimmy Smith created a whole language on the organ that really has set up what everyone else is doing from that point on.  There's been very few people to get out of that umbrella.  Larry Young is one, pretty much the only to get out of that Jimmy Smith umbrella.  I mean everyone has their own personalities and styles within that it's not to say that everyone's just Jimmy Smith clones but Larry Young was the one guy to really get out of that really heavy Jimmy Smith influence."

What does Billy Martin make of all this?  "I don't know anything about the organ tradition. He's a drummer on that thing!!"

After the gig at the Blue Nile in 2011 a west coast tour followed which ended with a recording stint in Berkeley.  A few numbers that made it onto their new release Shimmy (via Royal Potato Family) stemmed from that second gig.  Deep In A Fried Pickle a hands down live favourite is one with it's rumbling bass, played largely with the left hand and accented by the foot stomps, and drum fills two breaths faster than a death tempo.  This album isn't all Hammond organ mind you, the Clavinet is an important fixture here as on a handful of other numbers. That night in New Orleans, Billy slipped into a Mardi Gras groove and Wil started into Down By The Riverside- that one made the album too.  Wil had a few compositions of his own that were staples of his repertoire.  Les and Eddie,  "is a tribute or homage to Les McCann and Eddie Harris", with interpolations of their song Compared To What from their seminal Swiss Movement album.  Blades also does a strong reading of Harris' Mean Greens on Shimmy.

Having lapsed six or seven hours of studio time the organist and the drummer asked the engineer how many minutes of material they had in the bag- twenty five minutes they got back.  This cultivated a sense of urgency and two of the albums finer songs Toe Thumb and Pick Pocket were the result of these late stage, deep bond improvisations which Martin later edited down a bit to shape them into songs.

The coda of the album is an incredibly gentle number Give that also worked it's way into their repertoire.  There is something very contemporary, not to mention righteous, about this song but it reminds Blades of Hendrix with it's Clavinet and 'washy' sound.  It lets him show that "side of my personality that I don't get to express that much... that swirly psychedelic side of myself" the funk gigs he normally plays have no place for.  There's a gathering quality here, as we're being drawn in just a breath further.

The last song on the album is a heart breaker and a heart maker.  Fittingly it was the first thing they recorded together.  "We were standing in the studio talking and I was just sort of playing this little thing without really thinking about it and Billy was like: 'Record that. Now. Go press record.  So I just played it, stopped, did another longer pass of it and I think we used the first take. To me that's how the record should end.  That means Good Night in Ethiopian."

Billy Martin & Wil Blades Duo
The Shuffle Demons
Jailmate (featuring members of The Burt Neilson Band)
plus DJ Jive Express (Sweetback, Chameleon Project)

THE GREAT HALL 1087 Queen Street West www.thegreathall.ca
Tickets: $25 - Soundscapes, Rotate This & Play De Record
Ticketweb Link: tktwb.tw/OryUOO
Facebook: on.fb.me/Rz5XxD

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