Montreal Jazz Festival: Days 4-6, July 4-6, 2009
Over the years drummer Brian Blade's Fellowship Band has been gradually diminishing in size. Starting as a texturally distinct septet that featured two reeds, keys, guitar, pedal steel, bass and drums, in recent years and on Season of Changes (Verve, 2008), the group became a sextet when pedal steel guitarist Dave Easley, who made Perceptual (Blue Note, 2000) such a groundbreaking record, left the band. Carrying on as a sextet with longtime members Kurt Rosenwinkel (guitar), Jon Cowherd (keyboards), Myron Walden (alto saxophone, bass clarinet), Melvin Butler (tenor saxophone) and Chris Thomas (bass), the group's voice was retained by both the combination of players and Blade's unique writing, which found its own way to blend the instrumentsespecially the hornsinto a sound where the whole was truly greater than the sum of its parts.
While there was plenty to recommend about the group's late night performance at Gesú, this even further slimmed down Fellowship Bandnow a quintet with Blade, Cowherd, Walden, Butler and Thomasstill retained its identity, but equally has lost something. The guitarand especially the combination of guitar and pedal steelalways gave the group a distinct complexion, especially since it's relatively rare to see a horn-led group with both piano and guitar (let alone piano, guitar and steel guitar), and Rosenwinkel, in particular, added a slightly countrified but sophisticated style and ethereal tone that helped give Fellowship its sound.
Still, any opportunity to watch Blade is one worth grabbing, and when he's with his own group, performing his own material, he seems to become even more energized than usual. At the performance he was like a dervish at times, a physical player whose arms seemed to flail and whose body would lift out of the drum chair as he leaned forward to hit the kit with a paradoxical combination of power and grace. Seeing two of the most remarkable young drummers in jazz in one eveningBlade and Harlandonly demonstrated the differences between the two. Harland is a crisp and definitive player, while Blade's tone is warm and woody, his cymbals dark-hued. Harland seemingly constructs his solos with great care; Blade enters a zone and plays in an almost stream-of-consciousness fashion, despite remaining completely focused. Both drummers are an education to watch; all the more so for their vastly different approaches.
The quintet wound its way through a set that mixed new material with some culled from Season of Changes, including the opening "Stoner Hill"a brief, lyrical and folkloric tune that, as gentle as it was, established a very different vibe for a set that gradually turned up the heat to feature strong solos from everyone. Walden was particularly impressive, especially on the haunting "Improvisation," from Season of Changesa bass clarinet duet with Cowherd on pump organand later, when a lengthy alto solo gradually, inexorably built to an almost orgiastic climax that not only had Blade yelling in admiration, but the audience as well. The ensemble work, especially the way in which Walden and Butler orbited, weaved and came together in unison on Blade and Cowherd's charts, was definitive of the Fellowship sound, but while Cowherd did much to capably fill the gap left by Rosenwinkel's absence, that absence was felt nevertheless.
l:r: Jon Cowherd, Myron Walden, Melvin Butler, Chris Thomas
The sold out crowd at Gesú was clearly primed for Blade and the Fellowship Band before it hit the stage, and once it did, all expectations were met for a performance that was almost as cathartic as Joshua Redman's, in the same venue a few hours earlier. But for Fellowship to continue with the sound that has defined it since the beginning, it truly needs to go back to at least a sextet with Rosenwinkel (or any of a number of other guitarists who might fit the bill, although Rosenwinkel has proven himself the right one for the band). As powerful as its performance was, it does run the risk of losing the very qualities that give it a unique and immediately recognizable voice.
For his second By Invitation series performance, saxophonist Joshua Redman took a right turn from the modernistic bent of his show the previous evening to the modern mainstream. Featuring longtime musical partner/pianist Sam Yahel, saxophonist Joe Lovano, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Gregory Hutchinson, it was an updated version of twin tenor workouts of the past including Gene Ammons/Sonny Stitt, Sonny Rollins/John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon/Ammons and, more recently, Chris Potter/Lovano. With material culled largely from two previous collaborations between the saxophonistsLovano's Tenor Legacy (Blue Note, 1994) and Redman's Back East (Nonesuch, 2007)it was a cooking 80-minute set that may not have been as hot as the evening before, but simmered throughout and, occasionally, boiled over.
l:r: Sam Yahel, Joshua Redman, Joe Lovano, Reuben Rogers, Gregory Hutchinson
Starting with Booker Little's amiably swinging "Rounder's Mood" and followed by Lovano's slightly edgier tribute to the late drummer Ed Blackwell, "Blackwell's Message," the set's premise was made clear from the get-go: solos from the rhythm section were plentiful, but the emphasis was on Redman and Lovano. In his first spoken introduction, Redman talked about how great it was to have Lovano there to kick his ass, and how much he enjoyed doing the By Invitation series, but that it was a lot of work, considering how he normally works for long periods on one project, and here he had to put two together back-to-back. Still, while there was no mistaking the care that went into selecting the personnel and material, the feel of the performance was one of effortless mastery, with Lovano and Redman at times orbiting around each other and coming together in powerful unison, at other times trading solos that, with the energetic backing of Yahel, Rogers and, in particular, Hutchinson, made for an exciting set.
Mainstream it may largely have been but it also ventured into freer territory on a visceral look at Ornette Coleman's "Kathelin Gray," and turned more cerebral/abstract on a particularly strong version of Wayne Shorter's "Indian Song." Lennie Tristano's aptly titled "Wow," with its high speed head, powerful pulse and some of the show's strongest solosnot just from Redman and Lovano, but from Yahel as wellwas one of the set's highlights, as was the Gene Ammons/Sonny Stitt workout, "Blues Up and Down," where Redman and Lovano tore it up for the set's longest track, resulting in an immediate standing ovation and no chance to leave the full house without at least one more tune. Yahel is all-too-often associated with more electric projects and for his fine Hammond organ work, but he's an equally imaginative pianist, based on his solos here and his all-acoustic, all-piano disc, Hometown (Posi-Tone, 2009).
Redman and Lovano commanded the set with an ability to push each other to greater heights, switching to soprano saxophones for the modal "Mantra #5," but Hutchinson came a close second; a powerful drummer who may not have the cachet of Harland or Blade but joined them, on the strength of this performance, in making the 30th edition of FIJM one of the strongest in terms of participating drummers.