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Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band at Sculler's Jazz Club

Nat Seelen By

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There’s a reason that Brian Blade has been the first call drummer of the jazz world for the past 20 years. He’s a master of tension and release. He swings like a dancer, and he projects total joy when he plays. Who wouldn’t want that behind them on the bandstand?
Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band
Sculler's Jazz Club
Cambridge, MA
November 10, 2017

I walked into the lobby of the Doubletree Hotel, home of Sculler's Jazz Club, at 9:40pm to find it packed, swarming with fans of Brian Blade eager to snap up a copy of his new album before the 10 o'clock set. In the middle of that swarm, I noticed Jeff Prystowsky, the mustachioed empresario behind the Low Anthem, the Columbus Theatre, and Eyeland Studio, where Blade and his Fellowship Band recorded "Body and Shadow" (Blue Note). Prystowsky and his wife, Leni, were quick to fill me in on the details behind the recording session while we waited for the staff to reset the room. The Fellowship Band had descended on Providence, RI, home of Eyeland Studio, for a week of music making, home-cooked dinners, jam sessions, and bicycle rides around College Hill. The Eyeland staff had mobilized their community to prepare for the event, their first major session at the new studio, even going so far as to assemble an ersatz Fellowship Band of local musicians to stand in for testing and setup. And then, they all waited for the mixing, the mastering, and the slow process of a new creation wending its way through the Blue Note machinery that resulted in the release of Body and Shadow tonight, twenty years after the band first started playing together.

The Fellowship Band is an unusual beast, comprised of jazz musicians famous for playing fast and hard taking it slow and soft. Incorporating influences from church and folk music, Blade and his colleagues have crafted a set full of lyrical art songs for jazz ensemble. Indeed, listening to their music put me in mind of Franz Schubert's lieder as much as Wayne Shorter, Joshua Redman, or any of the other acts Blade is often associated with.

The doors to Sculler's opened and I followed Jeff and Leni to the bar. It was a full house for both sets, a welcome sight for a cold night here in Boston. The saxophonists, Myron Walden and Melvin Butler, were already on stage, wetting their reeds and checking their setups. Walden was on double duty, playing tenor sax and bass clarinet. Bassist Chris Thomas, a long-time Blade collaborator from New Orleans, joined them, and then pianist Jon Cowherd and Blade took their seats. The lights dimmed, the murmurs of the crowd shimmered to a halt, and the Fellowship Band launched into "Stoner Hill," off of their 2008 release, "Season of Changes." They stretched the six songs of their set into almost 90 minutes of music, slowly feeling their way through. Walden and Butler wound soulful lyricism into unison melodies before breaking apart into roaring solos. Cowherd toyed with our sense of pacing, pulling us along through his chords and lines while Thomas anchored the groove.

And then there was Brian Blade. There's a reason that Brian Blade has been the first call drummer of the jazz world for the past 20 years. He's a master of tension and release. He swings like a dancer, and he projects total joy when he plays. Who wouldn't want that behind them on the bandstand? From slow movements to up-tempo, Blade never failed to provide just the right counterpoint to his colleagues, egging them on with a smile from behind the cymbals. It's hard to avoid being inspired when you see him play; you get the feeling he'd be just as exciting to watch with the sound turned off as when you're hearing his masterful stickwork.

By the end of the evening, I understood completely the excitement of the fans I'd passed in the lobby on my way in. The band closed with a moving rendition of "Within Everything," which Blade originally recorded with Danilo Pérez and John Patitucci on 2015's Children of the Light before reworking with the Fellowship Band on Body and Shadow. I bundled up to return to the cold New England night, warmed by the time I spent with the Fellowship Band: lovely music, superb musicianship, and a fantastic record release.

Set list: Stoner Hill; Architects/Landmarks; Broken Leg Days; Alpha and Omega; King's Highway; Within Everything (encore).

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