Wil Blades, rising star of the Hammond B-3

Everywhere you look, the Hammond organ is back. Enthusiasts might argue it never went away, but mainstream awareness of the mighty instrument has definitely passed a tipping point. It’s a thing, and we can certainly place part of the blame on San Francisco Bay area jazz-funk organist Wil Blades.

Everywhere you look, the Hammond organ is back. Enthusiasts might argue it never went away, but mainstream awareness of the mighty instrument has definitely passed a tipping point. It’s a thing, and we can certainly place part of the blame on San Francisco Bay area jazz-funk organist Wil Blades. After a show at Oakland’s Duende, where his duo played a round-robin marathon alongside Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey and Seattle-based McTuff, we caught up with Wil to talk about his roots as a drummer, his new album Field Notes, and the importance of one-on-one musical mentorship.

What was your point of entry into Hammond organ?

I grew up playing drums and guitar. So, from a really early age, like eight, I’ve always had this really strong feeling for rhythm and groove. When I started to become aware of the Hammond, part of what I noticed was how percussive it was, and that’s what really got me into it. In high school I started playing guitar. I got into Hendrix and Pink Floyd, Santana—a lot of that stuff.

Early Santana with Gregg Rolie?

Yeah, the sound he got on those records was insane—a real dirty, gritty sound. I became obsessed with the sound of the Leslie changing speeds. I went down the rabbit hole from there and started checking out Jimmy Smith. This was around ’95 to ’96. It kind of coincided with Medeski, Martin, and Wood hitting the scene, and the way those guys combined elements of electronic music—like drum and bass and jazz and funk music—was [another] one of the things that really got me into it. And then just checking out Jimmy Smith and going back from there to Jimmy McGriff and Jack McDuff, then Dr. Lonnie [Smith].

Did you own a vintage Hammond first, or a portable clone?

I just went straight for the real thing. I bought an M3 at first and was just toying with it. I wasn’t seriously trying to play it. I got into it more when I moved to Oakland from Chicago. I bought a C3 when I got out here and got this weekly happy hour gig at the Boom Boom Room [an iconic San Francisco nightclub opened by John Lee Hooker]. They have a B-3 and two Leslies. Now, the C3 lives at home, my road organ is an A100 through a modified Leslie 770, and for one-off gigs where I don’t want to carry that much, I just ordered a Hammond SK2.

In one tune at your show, your right hand was going way outside the beat along with the drummer’s improv, but you kept a left-hand bass line right in the pocket. How did you develop that level of hand independence?

A lot of people talk about independence, but I try to think about it not as independence but as one thing. That definitely comes from my experience playing drums, from learning a beat and not thinking about it as four separate limbs. I know that’s the term that people use, “independence,” but I like to think about it as a unity in which everything locks together.

I do like being able to play behind the beat or push the rhythm. So one thing I’ve been real conscious of—not only by playing with a metronome but also on gigs—is really trying to keep the left hand steady and intentionally pull the right hand way behind the beat, or ahead of it. I’m not claiming to be a great drummer, but playing drums for so many years helped my coordination on the organ rhythmically.

Do you still play drums actively?

At a certain point, I started practicing drums again after not playing for a while, and partially just through osmosis, it tightened up my organ playing a lot. My bass lines started getting a lot more solid, for one thing. I’ve always liked the ability to play with rhythm. I’ve always tried to play bass on the organ with a chip on my shoulder—meaning, I don’t ever want anyone in the band to feel like they’re missing something because I’m the bass player doing it on the organ. I want them to feel like they have a bass player, not a keyboard player trying to play bass.

On that topic, what bass players have influenced your left-hand bass style?

Sam Jones, Butch Warren, Paul Chambers, Percy Heath, and Herbie Lewis, who I got to study with at the New College of California. I got a lot of one-on-one time with him and learned a lot about quarter-note swing and walking bass lines. When I was younger, I played with a lot of local, older cats—Henry Oden, Charles Thomas—and really listened them playing behind me. As far as electric players, James Jamerson is obvious—I like that midrange, old-school sound. Also, Bootsy Collins from the James Brown era.

You also play the drawbars, going through a lot of registrations from sparse to full. Is there any sort of roadmap to that?

I think that when I’m playing in a duo, I do a lot more with the drawbars than I would, say, in a trio or larger group, because I’m trying not to have the organ sound boring. But also it’s just thinking of orchestration, which is a concept from most of the jazz organ players, dating back to Wild Bill Davis and all the way up to Dr. Lonnie Smith—viewing the organ as an orchestra and having all these different timbers and textures you can get.

What do you think of the whole jam band phenomenon?

The jam band thing is funny because I think it describes the audience more than it describes some of the bands. Like Medeski, Martin, and Wood. I never saw them as a “jam band,” especially when they first came out. They’re an avant-garde jazz funk band. They just happened to catch the jam audience.

In the context of your question, I lean toward stuff that’s more groove-oriented, but also more about harmony and not just straight up one-chord funk vamps with a head. I’ve been trying to interject some harmony, even if it’s over a static groove—just viewing it as a pedal point and putting some harmony on top of it. More and more, I just like to hear movement.

Can you name a jazz composition you like because it’s harmonically interesting?

There are so many compositions, but one artist like that is Herbie Hancock. He really maintains the balance of heart and head, which is what I really dig: people who have a lot of soul but their music gives you something to chew on intellectually as well. In terms of interesting harmony happening over static grooves, I’d say Miles Davis as well, certainly.

On your latest record, Field Notes, there’s a bit of Miles-ism in terms of voice-leading and harmonic motion over a groove . . .

Actually, around the time that I was thinking out this project, I was listening to a lot of Live-Evil and the complete In a Silent Way sessions—a lot of stuff from that era where he was just getting into that. Miles has always been a huge influence on me. The older I get, the more I appreciate his sense of melody, his sense of phrasing, his sense of space, and just his concept in general.

You recorded Field Notes at Ex’pression College in Emeryville, California, as opposed to a commercial studio. Why that choice?

A friend of mine, Andrew Freid, who is the head sound engineer at the Boom Boom Room, was a course director there. The Billy Martin duo record [Shimmy] was also recorded there with the same engineer. They have the [Endless Analog] CLASP system there, so you can record through Pro Tools to tape. I was really happy with how the Billy Martin album came out sonically. So when I did this record I hit up Andrew again and we did it the same way, to tape using CLASP.

Also, both records were recorded with no headphones—just live in a room. I’m not a huge fan of separating everything. I feel like a bit of bleed gives you this glue that makes everything sound not so sterile. And I’m totally psyched with the way this record sounds. Andrew did an amazing job. The organ bass is super clear, which is hard to get right.

How do you feel about formal musical training?

I have no formal training on the organ per se. When I started in the late ’90s, the Internet was still so young. There was no YouTube to check out artists’ playing or instructional videos. I was left to figure out stuff on my own from records. So I developed an ear through that. Then Dr. Lonnie Smith became a mentor of mine—I’d ask him questions after gigs and he’d sit me down and show me things.

I’ve had this unintentionally old-school education where even though I went to school, my teacher Herbie Lewis came up through a time when there wasn’t jazz education. His best friends growing up were Billy Higgins and Bobby Hutcherson. You just played and learned stuff off records. So when I was studying with him, it was just listening to records and him making us play a song for three hours until we got it right.

So it was trial by fire, really.

Yeah. It was similar to how cats came up back in the day. There are things you learn from the old mentorship style that they don’t teach in school, like being onstage and seeing how a bandleader manages everything from the music itself to the pacing of the set list. Things like really knowing how to build a show and interact with the audience. That stuff is unfortunately not really dealt with in the jazz conservatory, which I think is why some jazz players are struggling in the live world. People get out there and they don’t know how to deal with an audience. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with going to school. But there needs to be some sort of balance where students get more of that one-on-one mentorship.