July 3: Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band, Monument National
It's hard to believe that Brian Blade first introduced his Fellowship Band twenty years ago in 1998, with its Blue Note debut Fellowship
. The original septet was a uniquely configured core lineup that, in addition to the drummer, pianist (and group co-composer, along with Blade) Jon Cowherd
, double bassist Christopher Thomas
, tenor/soprano saxophonist Melvin Butler
and altoist/bass clarinetist Myron Walden
, also featured on-the-rise guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel
and, most distinctively, a remarkable pedal steel player, Dave Easley. This seven-piece lineup put on a powerful performance at the 2000 FIJM, defining Fellowship as a group to absolutely keep watching, but also one which increasingly evolved into a band of musicians' musicians, capable of a great many things but including, most specifically, the folkloric ribbons which ran through the group's admittedly jazz-infused complexion, as Blade and Cowherd contributed sometimes complex but always profoundly lyrical and surprisingly accessible music.
The core group remained intact for its even more compelling 2000 Blue Note follow-up, Perceptual
, which remains a high point in the group's small but significant discography to this day.
But change was in the air as Easley left the group, making seven into six, but that immense loss was handled in a unique fashion, demonstrative of just how important the word "Fellowship" is to his group, as a 2014 All About Jazz
interview, FellowshipMore Than Just a Word
rendered crystal clear.
Fellowship Band truly is a band of brothers, despite coming from different cities and representing some disparate cultures and musical backgrounds. The specificity of Fellowship meant that, while the group would recruit other musicians as guests on their subsequent three recordings, when it came to true membership and touring, the band has never replaced a single core member. Instead, through attrition, as Rosenwinkel's ascendant career meant no time for Fellowship, the guitarist was forced to leave the group after 2008's Season of Changes
(Verve), as six became five and the remaining members continued on as a quintet.
Fellowship Band's first stop at the 2009 FIJM
following Rosenwinkel's departure, was certainly a good one, but it also seemed that the band was still trying to find its way; losing two of its five front-line voices clearly presented no small challenge to the group. Still, by the time Fellowship reached Norway's Oslo Jazz Festival
in 2011 and a show the following year at Canada's TD Ottawa Jazz Festival
which would have raised the roof (as it did in Oslo) had the outdoor park actually possessed a roof to
raiseit became increasingly clear that the group had found its way as a quintet, navigating Blade and/or Cowherd's melody rich charts with increasingly quiet confidence, somehow finding a way to make charts, some originally written for seven (or six) players, lose absolutely nothing when reduced to five.
But before Fellowship delivered its stellar Monument National show (with encore, hovering at roughly 100 minutes), an opening act that was this year's winner of the festival's annual TD Jazz Prize
not just a sign of recognition, but also a prize that included a stipend of $5,000performed an opening set that, while well-received, was not without its flaws.
SHPIK is a Montréal group featuring the seemingly irrepressible pianist Arnaud Spick-Saucier, double bassist Etienne Dextraze, drummer Philippe Lussier-Bailargeon and saxophonist/flautist Alex Dodier. The band's modus operandus
was to create immersive, impressionistic music, music into which the audience could lose itself and which was as informed by film music as it was jazz. While achieving its goal at times, it was, perhaps, too early for the group to assert its intent as it did not consistently achieve its ambitious objective.
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 choiceswas 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.
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 timeeven when separated by, in some cases, many yearsbut 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.