Brian Blade: Fellowship - More Than Just a Word


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The idea of spirit and what it means? For me it's all about are you giving your whole self to a situation or are you just phoning it in? One is spirit-full and the other is spirit-less. To hide those gifts, to not use them; I really just couldn't do that.
—Brian Blade
In the 21st century, few drummers have managed Brian Blade's kind of crossover success. Beyond playing in saxophonist Wayne Shorter's quartet for nearly 15 years, beyond being a first-call drummer for producer/singer/songwriter Daniel Lanois—whether it's for his own projects like Black Dub or working with everyone from Bob Dylan to EmmyLou Harris—and beyond also being on-call with some of the most important names in modern music (not just jazz, but music) like Joni Mitchell, Norah Jones, John Scofield and Kenny Werner, Blade has forged a dual-career as both the co-founder of his more jazz-centric The Fellowship Band, and as an astute and tastefully sweet singer/songwriter, so far documented on just one release, the unexpectedly superb Mama Rosa (Verve, 2008).

The Fellowship Band began life as a name sourced from Blade's first solo album, Fellowship (Blue Note, 1998), a remarkable date that featured simpatico reed multi-instrumentalists Myron Walden and Melvin Butler, the rock-steady but ever-responsive bassist Chris Thomas, imaginative pedal steel guitarist Dave Easley, gently open-eared (and open-minded) guitarist Jeff Parker and, perhaps, most importantly, the keyboardist who, along with Blade, would become one of The Fellowship Band's two primary composers, Jon Cowherd. That first album was a strong shot across the bow, introducing a group whose blending of the jazz tradition with the folkloric roots and inescapable influence of church in Blade's Shreveport, Louisiana upbringing caught the ears of so many other musicians that, when the group plays in New York, it is actually a challenge for non-musicians to find a ticket.

In the 16 years that followed there have been only three more Fellowship recordings: 2000's exceptional milestone, Perceptual, where Parker was replaced by up-and-coming guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel; 2008's impressive Season of Changes saw the departure of Easley, the reduction of the group to a sextet and a new home with Verve; and, finally, after six years, the rightfully anticipated Landmarks, which finds the Fellowship Band back at its original home with Blue Note Records. While there are significant guest appearances by both Parker and guitarist Marvin Sewell, Landmarks reflects the Fellowship Band of the past five years: a lean and mean quintet, with original members Blade, Thomas, Cowherd, Walden and Butler.

It's been a long road to the release of Landmarks; as early as 2011, at a positively nuclear performance at the Oslo Jazz Festival, both Walden and Blade referred to a new album as being imminent, quite possibly including live recordings that have been made along the way. The final result, three years later, is something totally different: a completely studio recording that features two new Cowherd compositions (one, the opening solo mellotron miniature, "Down River," more improvisation than writing), seven Blade compositions, one collaboration by Blade and Sewell, and a brief version of the often-covered "Shenandoah," a traditional folk tune that the group has performed in concert for some time, but generally as a much longer piece.

"I think it speaks to each member in the band, our collective reverence for melody—for poetic things, for brevity and the power in that—as well as these exploratory, long landscape journeys that we take," says Blade. "I like to hear things more simply stated at times, and for it to only be that and not an improvisatory trip but, instead, a very short and, hopefully, potent song. Those threads hopefully connect the storyline and you see these brief colors—like those brief moments, right at sunset, where you see this color for, like, sixty seconds; and then night falls, or day breaks. So it kinda speaks to nature in that way, hopefully, and of the landmarks that we pass along the way, as well."

Along with "Shenandoah," Cowherd's opening "Down River," and the near-song form of Landmarks' folkloric closer, "Embers," there's a fourth miniature, "State Lines," that's the only co-credited composition on the record, a near-ambient soundscape from Marvin Sewell. "That's one of those pieces that reveals itself in the studio," Blade explains. What it is, is somewhat of a variation that draws upon the melody of "Ark.La.Tex"; these five notes that happened over this 'A' drone. So I asked Marvin if he'd set the piece up, to sort of introduce "Ark.La.Tex." And because of what he played, it was so beautiful and something that I could never have envisioned myself, I felt it should be credited as a dual composition. I feel like he brought something of his own to it; I love the fact that it really is "Ark.La.Tex" distilled [laughs]."

While it's easy to point at the name "Fellowship Band" and render obvious commentary about its meaning for not just this group of musicians, but for any musical collective that remains together for any length of time, for Blade and this band it assumes a much deeper meaning. This is an egalitarian collective that shares many things: friendship, life on the road, and music, to be sure; but there's something else that's harder to define but easy to feel. One look at the band onstage and it becomes clear that this truly is about fellowship, and watching the eye contact, the joy of being together to make music, and the irrefutable equality, it becomes clear why Blade struggles, to some extent, to have his name removed from the marquee so that the band can be called, simply, The Fellowship Band. Of course, with Blade's higher profile, it's understandable that this is something of an uphill battle, but there's no greater example of Blade's desire to share Fellowship's profile equally than his request, at the end of this interview, that the lead photo be one of the entire band, and not just himself, alone.

"Over time, it gets deeper," Blade says. "It grows. All those time spent together getting in the van, getting out of the van, getting off of the plane stepping out on stage and surrendering to the moment night after night, it does enrich your bond and so I'm thankful that these relationships continue and that the music continues to reveal itself."

Blade's words inevitably speak of real truth, honesty and humility. For a drummer who, at this point in his career, could play with pretty much anyone he wants, that he chooses to continue to collaborate with these four players—and that, as people have left the band, rather than replacing them, the choice has been to work with a shrinking core of musicians that share the values so essential in defining the music—speaks volumes. "It's a credit to each individual in the band and their commitment within their own busy lives to come together when we have the opportunity," says Blade. "No one knows how long something will exist or remain whole, but since 1997, thankfully we have. And I pray that it will continue for some time to come.

"Between Jeff [Parker] and Dave [Easley] and Kurt [Rosenwinkel], they had previous commitments with their own bands, so over time it just distilled down to the five of us," Blade continues. "Once I accepted that as a sign of what it was, Jon and I would write music, depending on the current work. I'm thankful that we can call on Jeff, Kurt, Dave or, in this case, Marvin Sewell, to suit my body of work at this particular point in time. But it's also great to feel that when we play as the five of us, there's still the whole picture."

The loss of two voices—and, more importantly, two chordal voices—could mean disaster for some, but for the Fellowship Band it's simply a matter of looking at it as opportunity. "I know that in that harmonic chasm that exists with Jon alone at the piano, he's able to make statements that don't necessarily have to coexist with another chordal instrument," Blade explains. "It's about whatever space he chooses, which can be occupied or left open. Over time, as a five piece, we've defined our positions to serve the body as it exists, and not to think of what is or isn't there on the records—or that I've written something for guitar. It's more about saying, 'Ok, here we are now; how do we render the music just as we are?' Hopefully we are growing stronger."

There's little doubt that as Fellowship has become smaller, its ability to create both incendiary power and unadorned beauty has actually become greater. Blade's "Farewell Bluebird," the third-to-last track on Landmark and, at over thirteen minutes, its longest, is a perfect example. Marvin Sewell takes a gritty, delta-driven slide solo that may help define the album track, but seeing the quintet perform it in concert is just as powerful—and complete. Thomas locks in with Blade for the blues-drenched riff at the core of the solo section, with Walden, Butler and Cowherd ultimately joining in to build it to a powerful climax, as Blade injects sharp punctuations and occasional screams, surrendering to the demands of the music and the moment, only to have the entire band pull back for a return to its positively gorgeous melody. As Butler and Walden orbit around each other and, occasionally, come together in commanding unison, it's clear that there is absolutely nothing missing from this band.

It wasn't always that way; at the group's 2009 performance at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, it seemed as though the quintet was still searching for its identity; but since then, including the 2011 Oslo performance and an equally exhilarating show in Ottawa the following year, it became clear that, while Fellowship is a group that's all about relentless searching, it had, at least, found its identity as a five-piece. And returning to Blue Note simply feels right to Blade, although the circumstances of Fellowship Band's return are somewhat different. "I'm thankful that Landmarks is finally coming out," says Blade. "I value people like Bruce Lundvall and the relationship with folks who believe in what you do, but also the greater idea of what music and the history and future of it is.

"Back after the '98 release of the first Fellowship record and the 2000 Perceptual record, I was going through a lot of transitions with management and all kinds of changes, and unfortunately I ended up making the third Fellowship Band album with Universal but, as it turns out, everything is now connected [Blue Note and EMI are now part of Universal Music Group]. So I feel like we're sort of back with family, and [Blue Note label head] Don Was and his position and all the folks who are at Blue Note—some of which are there from our first recording—it's great to already have this sort of trust and knowing in place. My brother, Brady Jr., has opened a studio where we recorded seven of the pieces from Landmarks; he also started a label with his partners called Mid-City. So, Landmarks is a licensing deal between Mid-City and Blue Note."

Blade also has strong feelings about Blue Note now being headed by Don Was, a producer whose purview, like Blade's, extends to the furthest reaches of jazz...and beyond. "It's great, man; Don's a music man and, like Bruce, he has a reverence for the history of the label. I think he has a vision for its future as well, so this whole familial connection with my brother and his relationships, and me and mine...it feels very restorative. And Brady is running Blade Studios here in Shreveport as well, and has kind of taken the reins of the Mid-City record label, so we're kind of the first guinea pigs," Blade says, with a chuckle. "I'm thankful that he can work out the kinks on me and hopefully some more things will come of it."

Blade doesn't just come from a musical family; he comes from one where spirituality is fundamental. My father has been a pastor, here in Shreveport, for 53 years," the drummer explains. "My brother Brady, he's five years older; he was playing drums in church when he was about thirteen or so, and I'd have been about eight. So I was always watching him, and following him around, and then he turned 17 and it was time for him to go away to college, I moved into the drum chair at the church.

"That environment—the Baptist Church—and the people, the parishioners and just the environment of praise, it gave me a way in without feeling like I was performing or doing a gig," Blade continues. "It was the bedrock which I've brought into every other situation since then; just to be there and have your part as a supporter—just to have it be something that you're fully committed to—so that, since then, I've been able to keep that sense of whatever gifts God gives, to use them to the best of my ability, no matter what the situation. Hopefully I've been guided to make good choices when I play music. So the whole idea of spirit and what that means to different people? For me it's all about are you giving your whole self to a situation or are you just phoning it in? So one is spirit-full and the other is spirit-less. I feel that to hide those gifts, to not use them...I really just couldn't do that.

"Over time, I'm so thankful for the experiences I've had, the opportunity of playing with musicians who were so much more advanced and experience than myself. It's always about the moment and you're always trying to find that thing, even if it's silence, that serves the song in the best possible way. If it was Joni Mitchell, it would be 'dotting my I's and crossing my T's,'" Blade concludes, laughing. "I'm just trying to give whatever punctuation or articulation is rhythmically needed to make the melody, the harmony or the words have power. And that can mean leaving space around it, or crashing down around it; so it's funny, from moment to moment, how that need changes."

Perhaps surprisingly, between regular work with the Fellowship Band, Lanois and Shorter, Blade still continues find time to participate in other projects while maintaining a balance in life to which many aspire but rarely achieve. Still, as in-demand as he is, Blade prefers not to think of himself as a session player.

One recording in the can and awaiting a label is guitarist Joel Harrison's Spirit House. "Yeah, I've known Joel for some time and I'm glad that we finally got the chance to play with his Spirit House project," Blade says. "We did a tour and then made the album at the end of that tour. Even with things that I'm already committed to, there's still room for surprises, which I try to build into my schedule, aside from the time I commit to when I'm just at home. I like the fact that I can play with others—friends. I wouldn't consider myself a session drummer; it's mostly relationships that, even if they're new, I accept with the condition of, 'Ok, do I feel connected to the music; do I have something to offer?' Aside from being thankful for the invitation, I want to make sure that when I'm involved with something I'm really in it and doing the best I can. "Thankfully it's all things that I love doing, so given no conflicts of scheduling, I think we're finding a pretty good balance of playing with Daniel—which is something that's important to me—in addition to the Wayne Shorter Quartet. I have the charge of trying to find and create opportunities for the Fellowship Band and Mama Rosa; those primary relationships in my life sort of make room for themselves in my year. And because I love doing those things, it never feels like some burden or too much on the plate, it feels like 'Ok, I'm where I'm supposed to be, and today is what we have.'"

Having worked extensively with Shorter, Lanois and, to a lesser but no less important extent, Joni Mitchell has given Blade the unique opportunity to grow in a number of very different ways, all of which have contributed to the drummer, composer and singer/songwriter he is today.

"What I learned from Joni was how to try and do what she does so perfectly, in such a genius way; she can tell such a personal story and wrap it in the most eloquent poetry and harmony, but it comes at you in a very personal way, to you," Blade explains. "Somehow then it takes on almost this universal feeling, like 'Oh, I've been there' or 'I've felt that,' but to hear it articulated in the way that only she can deliver it. It's really incredible.

"With Daniel, he is a keen observer," Blade continues. "His songwriting, what he feels makes a song into something that touches people—and sonically what makes it interesting and the ears to open wider—he's a master of that. And he encourages me; whenever he invites me to play his music or on a session that he's producing for someone else, he's always believing in the people in the room, and he's always spotting things, like' Here we go; we had something right here; let's stay in this direction.' So he's really a master at that. Daniel builds things and they take on a life of their own. And then he moves on to the next building or project; it's great to continue our musical and personal friendship.

"And Wayne? What I learned from him is he is so much about, 'Let's take a chance.' This, coming from probably the greatest composer of any time, but he wants to come away from the page, step into the dark and find this collective composition and shine a light on that," Blade continues. "It's scary, because you have to play from nothing: there's no script and there's no music for any of us. He just wants us to start playing. So it took a while for the quartet—me and Danilo Pérez and John Patitucci—to 'get' Wayne's vision of what he was after. So we are continually trying to do this when we play—the idea of this composition, unknown to us and the listener, to unfold and the willingness to take that chance and take that trip. I think listeners also feel that you're searching as well; it's been really great."

That Shorter's three live recordings with this quartet—Footprints Live! (Verve, 2002), the even more impressive Beyond the Sound Barrier (Verve, 2005) and even more unfolding surprises of Without a Net (Blue Note, 2013)—have included a mix of new material and older titles so significantly opened up for exploration as to become, at times, almost unrecognizable, exemplifies Shorter's relentless search, and refusal to rest on what are, by this time in the octogenarian's lengthy career, considerable laurels.

"I think that's the beauty and genius of Wayne," Blade enthuses. "He's not resting on the incredible body of work that he's written yesterday; he's still looking for the new doorway. Somehow, to him, I think his compositions are never finished; they're still malleable, so he's molding these things, so he'll bring in a whole other variation on 'Sanctuary,' sometimes, or something that he may have started writing, say, in 1967. It's interesting that, as well as new work, he's always (re)writing. It's great for us to always have the privilege of seeing what he's going to bring in, of hearing what he's imagining. You never know how long anything is going to be, but I'm really thankful that we've stayed together and that Wayne is still doing great and wants to play."

With Landmarks set for its April 29, 2014 release, there's little doubt that longtime Fellowship Band fans will find plenty of the deep melodies and profound interaction that's defined the group since its inception. With all but two tracks recorded at Blade Studios in Shreveport, it's been a lengthy process from conception to final result. Blade does most of his writing on guitar: "Except for, I think, one piece on our last record, Season of Changes, a piece called " Alpha and Omega" which I wrote at the piano, 99% of the time I write on guitar, bring it in and everybody kind of brings it to life," he says.

But just how does the music come to life? "The writing is detailed in the sense that when I write, I'm envisioning each individual in the band: I'm hearing Jon playing these chords, or Myron and Melvin playing these melodies and Chris playing this counterpoint on bass. It gives me this liberty to feel like it's personalized for us and then I just have to create...to come up with what the drummer is going to play for what this guy wrote," Blade says, laughing. "So I get to step out of the position of composer on guitar and become the drummer in the band and find my part; it's an interesting process and it's all very tailored for the band.

"The music usually reveals itself pretty quickly in terms of what works for me when I bring in a new piece of music and how the song really speaks," Blade continues. "We don't get a lot of opportunity to rehearse, but with all the time we've had together, everyone comes in with their strengths and spirit—and our connection—and we can find a sound and interpretation for a piece pretty quickly.

"The process is such a mystery because to collectively feel like, 'Ok, we got to something that represents a song and represents everyone as soloists, but also as ensemble' and to be able to make that objective choice over a period of days? I guess if we'd only had one day we would've done it one day, but we had a few days to experiment a little bit and change things—'Let's try this here,' or 'Let's try this body of the arrangement with a solo'—to find what the music is wanting; it's been a trip. We make those choices pretty quickly. There wasn't any postproduction; we just try to find performances and live with that," concludes Blade.

In a time where post-production editing can create perfect but oftentimes lifeless performances, it's refreshing to hear a band that goes for the best overall performance, warts and all. "So many of my favorite records, they're I guess what you'd call humanisms [laughs]. But the greater arc and the reach of the music, hopefully it touches something that, if those little humanisms weren't present, would lack a feeling—like a certain thing that draws you to it.

"It's like this great cymbal artist, Roberto Spizzichino; I play some of his cymbals," Blade continues. "He passed away couple years ago, but he would talk about making cymbals, and he's hammering this chunk of metal alloy—brass and copper—to make this instrument. But he was after that true, unique thing. It may not necessarily have been beautiful, but he wanted it to be truthfully unique. Hopefully the music is beautiful too, but not at the expense of real life and real consonance and dissonance."

As the release of Landmarks approaches, Blade is already looking ahead to the future, while trying to maintain that all-important balance. "I've just been enjoying the Fellowship Band and Wayne, and times at home with my family; it has been great to kind of reflect from the holidays into the new year and not have to rush right into executing the plan, as it would be," Blade says. "I'm also looking forward to making the next Mama Rosa album, because the songs are kind of piling up. I would like for it all to be in one place, so I look forward to that time."

And with a growing archive of live recordings that were, at one point, being considered for Landmarks, Blade still has hopes: "None of it has seen the light of day yet, and I hope that it will at some time, because it is a whole other view of the band in the moment."

In the meantime, Blade will continue to search for opportunities for the Fellowship Band, a group whose connection to the jazz tradition is irrefutable, but which also evocates southern landscapes, spiritual pursuits and folkloric lyricism. "I'm not sure what I guess is a constant mining for what the sound of the Fellowship Band is," Blade says. "It's a given that we won't be able to recreate John Coltrane's quartet or Thelonious Monk, much as we love all those things that inspired us. We have to find some way to carry them into ourselves and hopefully deliver something that is our own thing. Not that we can't play their music—which I would love to do—but it's funny; I don't think of Fellowship Band as lacking tradition; instead, it is revealing more of who we are at this time. I'm glad there's been the chance to watch the band growing and becoming deeper...but I have no idea where it's going!"

Photo Credit: Kristian Hill

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