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Brian Blade: Fellowship - More Than Just a Word

John Kelman By

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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."
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