For Will Blades, the most difficult part of bidding goodbye to his longtime home in Berkeley wasn’t packing up possessions accumulated over two decades in the Bay Area or settling into the family’s new digs in Los Angeles. As the Bay Area jazz scene’s most visible and acclaimed Hammond B-3 player, Blades has forged an extensive array of musical relationships, and he wants to manifest as many of those collaborations as possible at a talent-packed program Sunday night at Freight and Salvage.
Serving as both a farewell and a 40th birthday celebration, the concert features some of his key mentors and peers while leaving many other confederates for another day. “It was incredibly hard,” says Blades from his new home in Los Feliz. “After being in the Bay Area 20 years I had to leave out a lot of people.”
Blades arrived in the Bay Area from his native Chicago during the height of the dot-com bubble and quickly found lots of work. One of his earliest employers, trumpeter, vocalist and percussionist Oscar Myers, will be joining him Sunday. “He’s someone who mentored me when I was underage and shouldn’t have even been in some of the clubs we played,” Blades recalls. “Playing with Oscar showed me how to be a bandleader. He’s got a pretty serious James Brown bag going. I might have to let him lead a James Brown tune.”
Blades started working with drummer Brandon Etzler within a few years of arriving in the Bay Area, focusing on boogaloo grooves from the 1960s and 70s in the combo OGD, which opened for Melvin Sparks. And guitarist Jack “Tone” Reardon, a long time Blades sparring partner worked with him many times at Madrone Art Bar and the Royal Cuckoo, “where we had a really good duo vibe,” Blades says.
No Blades event would be complete without Berkeley drummer Scott Amendola, his frequent partner in the pugilistically grooving duo Amendola Vs. Blades. After battling each other to a deeply funky draw on 2016’s Greatest Hits (Sazi Records), their rematch Everybody Wins (The Royal Potato Family) is due out on Oct. 11. “Scott is like another bother,” Blades says. “We’ve had the duo for years, but more importantly our kids have grown up together.”
Los Angeles guitarist Jeff Parker, a musical confidante of both Blades and Amendola, will also be joining Sunday’s proceedings. A creative force since his tenure in the influential Chicago post-rock combo Tortoise, Parker is an inveterately inventive artist first connected with Blades “on a wedding gig in Chicago. We ended up playing together a lot, and he’s one of my favorite musicians,” Blades says.
As a birthday present to himself, Blades decided to fly in two players from far out of town. Drummer Mike Clark came up on the Bay Area scene in the 1960s, and first gained fame as a member of Herbie Hancock’s funk band Headhunters, though given his druthers he’d rather swing with the ebullient force of his rhythmic role model, Philly Joe Jones. “Mike is a legend who literally invented a way of playing drums that have influenced a lot of younger drummers,” Blades says. “He’s a Bay Area cat originally. We’re always trying to figure out different situations to play together.”
The icing on this delectable cake is New Orleans alto sax master Donald Harrison Jr., who first made his mark with trumpeter Terence Blanchard in a potent mid-1980s iteration of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. He’s played with Blades in an array of settings in the Bay Area and New Orleans.
“He’ll pop through when he’s in town just to sit in,” Blades says. “Donald is an incredibly underrated musician, easily one of the top three best musicians I’ve ever played with. It’s not just about musicianship, but the groove and feeling and history he plays with. He’s a complete musician.”
I explored Blades’ reasons for the move south in another story. Suffice it to say he and his wife, a film and video editor, are looking for greener pastures. We won’t have long to miss him. He opens a four-night run at the SFJAZZ Center’s Joe Henderson Lab on Halloween with Amendola Vs. Blades augmented by Jeff Parker, saxophonist Skerik, and Brazilian percussion wildcard Cyro Baptista.
Recommended gig: 2 extraordinary Brazil Camp concerts
While California Brazil Camp takes place tucked away among the redwoods of Cazadero in the latter weeks of August, the program’s illustrious faculty can often be found on Bay Area stages. This weekend features two extraordinary Brazil Camp concerts at the California Jazz Conservatory, starting Saturday with Guinga and Monica Salmaso. A guitarist and vocalist, Guinga is also one a revered composer whose songs have been recorded by the likes of Elis Regina, Nelson Gonçalves, Miúcha, Clara Nunes, Michel Legrand, and Ivan Lins (who created the Velas label with lyricist Vitor Martins in 1990 launch Guinga’s solo career). Salmaso has been one of Brazil’s most celebrated singers since the release of 1995’s Afro Sambas, a project arranged and produced by guitar great Paulo Bellinati that premiered Baden Powell and Vinícius de Moraes’s complete Afro-Sambas. One of her recent albums, 2014’s Corpo de Baile (Biscoito Fino) features songs by Guinga and Paulo César Pinheiro.