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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]."

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