Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2017. Body and Shadow is only their fifth album: they have not recorded prolifically, but each one has been worth the wait. The group occupies a unique space: the sound of Americana (chiefly folk music) is dominant, but played with a jazz sensibility. Despite the considerable technical firepower in the band, it has always kept the focus on the ensemble sound rather than on soloists. For this outing drummer Brian Blade and keyboardist Jon Cowherd have nearly equal compositional input, and the group welcomes a new member in Denver-based guitarist Dave Devine.
Blade gets the first word with "Within Everything," an elegiac slow tune with a haunting melody. The first of the "Body and Shadow" entries is nextNoon, later followed by Morning and Night. These are gentle explorations of similar material, rather minimal until a theme finally appears in the last one. Cowherd's first contribution is "Traveling Mercies," another folksong-like tune which nonetheless includes a dramatic, contrasting bridge. The feeling of contrast is even stronger in the aptly-titled "Duality," which is made up of two contrasting sections. The longest selection by far, it also has the most pronounced jazz feel. The first half features a long, joyful piano solo by the composer; the second half spotlights alto saxophonist Myron Walden in an electrifying solo turn.
The group's previous album Landmarks (Blue Note, 2014) featured a rare cover, a hymn-like treatment of the traditional song "Shenandoah." This time they up the ante with an actual hymn: "Have Thine Own Way, Lord." Cowherd plays it solo on harmonium first, then the entire band continues the feeling with Blade's arrangement. That it fits in with the original music so well is a testament to the deep traditional roots of the Fellowship Band's music. They have never been a long-winded bunch, but this is an especially succinct collection: the nine tracks run only a little over half an hour. Not a minute is wasted.
Within Everything; Body and Shadow (Noon); Traveling Mercies; Have Thine Own Way, Lord (Solo);
Have Thine Own Way, Lord (Band); Body and Shadow (Morning); Duality; Body and Shadow (Night);
Broken Leg Days.
Brian Blade: drums; Jon Cowherd: piano, harmonium, mellotron; Chris Thomas: bass; Melvin Butler:
tenor saxophone; Myron Walden: alto saxophone, bass clarinet; Dave Devine: guitar.