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Festival International de Jazz de Montréal 2018: Part 1

John Kelman By

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While Blade rarely soloed, his ability to find a multiplicity of underlying grooves and polyrhythms were bolstered by Thomas' largely simple, spare and ever-astute choices, creating a fluid foundation for Cowherd, Walden and Butler. Butler's soprano solo on Landmarks' extended "Ark.La.Tex," for example, drew a huge round of applause from the enthusiastic capacity crowd, while a similarly expanded look at Body and Shadow's 7/4-driven "Traveling Mercies" was another highlight, featuring a vivid piano solo from Cowherd and, ultimately, some exhilarating in-tandem work between Walden and Butler.

Beyond everyone's undeniable virtuosity, some of Fellowship's most defining qualities were the way that, scored or improvised, Walden and Butler's lines orbited in, out and around each other, often creating the impression of a larger section. Cowherd remains one of music's (and not just jazz) hidden treasures, with too few solo albums (albeit including 2014's stellar ArtistShare recording, Mercy) and a résumé that includes, along with Blade, recording and/or touring with everyone from Lizz Wright and Rosanne Cash to Cassandra Wilson and Iggy Pop.

Blade's relaxed, completely liquid command of his kit has made him one of the most in-demand players of his generation, with an even larger C.V. that includes, in addition to Wayne Shorter's nearly two-decade old quartet, collaborations with artists ranging from Emmylou Harris, Daniel Lanois and Joni Mitchell to Bob Dylan, John Scofield and Shawn Colvin. Together with Cowherd, he's responsible for Fellowship's material but there's absolutely no doubt that the band would not be what it is without the longstanding chemistry, friendship and, yes, fellowship the two share with Thomas, Walden and Butler.

Together for 20 years, Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band have evolved into not just one of jazz's most longstanding ensembles, but one of its most distinctive in its blend of jazz and various other American music traditions, its five members' mitochondrial connection, and a sense of joy, each time they play together, that is as palpable and deep as it is captivating and commanding, it's hard to imagine this influential ensemble continuing to improve and becoming even more connected over time—even when separated by, in some cases, many years—but it does. And with its appearance at the 2018 FIJM the clearest evidence anyone needs, its performance will certainly go down as another milestone in this year's already high bar.

And so, with the Fellowship Band show over, so too does another year of Festival International de Jazz de Montréal coverage wrap up, with All About Jazz's Mark Sullivan picking up the baton and seeing the festival through to its conclusion in a few days.

Beyond being a landmark festival with an embarrassment of riches, it's important to shine a light on the festival's media staff, which treats journalists from Montréal and abroad with the kind of friendly professionalism that ensures their needs are always met. Much of the time the staff are invisible, having done their jobs so well that journalists need rarely ask for help. But when help is needed, they're always there to take care of anything and everything, quickly and completely.

With 2019 looming as the festival's 40th anniversary, it's likely that this already massive festival already has something even bigger in mind. It'll be a long wait, but when the festival rolls out its 2019 program, there's little doubt that it's going to be something very special.

Photo Credit: Dave Kaufman

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