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Festival International de Jazz de Montréal 2018: Part 1

John Kelman By

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With Dodier employing a vast array of effects, all on tables in front of him and controlled by hand, the closest reference point would be British progressive rock band Van der Graaf Generator's co-founding (but, sadly, no longer) woodwind/reed specialist David Jackson, who expanded the possibilities of his instruments through use of various effects, beginning with the band's early days in the late '60s. Still, Jackson's work, which often included playing more than one horn simultaneous à la Rahsaan Roland Kirk, was more dominant to VdGG's overall sonic complexion. Instead, while there were occasional bits of flute and saxophone floating through the rest of SHPIK's sound, Dodier was largely lost amidst his band mates' more overbearing sonics.

While nowhere near as virtuosic, the piano trio shared certain elements with the sadly defunct Esbjorn Svensson Trio (e.s.t.), in particular the way that Dextraze used his bow to create deep in-the-gut bowed lines, and in Spick-Saucier's occasional references to Keith Jarrett and Herbie Hancock, albeit with a less-sophisticated language.

And so, a loosely defined combination of e.s.t. and VdGG's horns and flutes could have been a winning combination, and there's no doubt that the group's melodic concerns, atmospherics combined with more grounded rhythms, and Spick-Saucier's positive energy made for a set that, if not entirely memorable, was certainly enjoyable enough. Still, it's likely (given this was the first opening act heard this week that didn't receive a standing ovation and demand for an encore) that few in the audience actually felt having that opening act was necessary and would have been just as happy with nothing but Fellowship Band's 100-minute set.

Opening its set with Season of Changes' slow, hauntingly lyrical "Stoner Hill," Blade and the Fellowship Band began a set that, despite certainly containing more than enough blowing space for everyone, was more about the writing and, in some cases, completely faithful performances of some of its through-composed works. Still, "Stoner Hill" was extended to include brief space for the deeply earth-toned Thomas and for Cowherd, even as Blade blended remarkable restraint and unfettered freedom, moving from delicate cymbal work to powerful injections of sheer energy across his kit. Later in the set, Cowherd's thoroughly beautiful harmonium work introduced a faithful rendition of Season of Changes' look at the American traditional "Shenandoah," with Walden's deep, dark and warm bass clarinet meshing perfectly with Butler's tenor. The combination of two reed instruments with the similarly reed-driven harmonium has always been an particularly synchronous sound, and amongst a number of touchstones that have come to define Fellowship Band.

Despite being a quintet of virtuosos (and everyone proving so throughout the set), Fellowship Band has always been more about the collective, about a family of friends who make music together because it's simply who they are and what motivates them. Still, everyone got one or more chance to shine amidst a setlist that drew, in addition to Season of Changes, from its more recent albums Landmarks (Blue Note, 2014) and Body and Shadow (Blue Note, 2017). À particularly powerful version of Landmark's "Farewell Bluebird" was taken into the stratosphere by Walden's visceral alto solo, which began with long-held shrieking notes...and built from there into a potent example of Fellowship Band at its empathic, telepathic best. A brief encore from the same album, "Friends Call Her Dot"—another largely through-composed tune with warm melodies coming from Walden's bass clarinet and Butler's tenor saxophone, with Blade's soft brushwork, Thomas' spare but ever-perfect choices and Cowherd's equally inspired harmonic choices—was the only song actually introduced by the drummer, who (like his band mates) stayed silent throughout the set, only picking up a microphone to introduce his brothers before the main set ended.

Past shows in Oslo and Ottawa made clear just how unique a bond is shared amongst a group of players originating from across the United States, with Blade from Shreveport, LA, Thomas from St. Louis, MO, Cowherd hailing from Kentucky, Walden originally from Miami, FL and Butler's place of birth in Kansas City, KS. it is, in fact, the very cultural diversity of Fellowship's five members that has turned it into a musical melting pot referencing church-driven spirituality, folkloric lyricism, an expansive jazz vernacular and the effortless ease with which they bring their various touchstones together, making every Fellowship Band performance an utterly memorable and enthralling experience.

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