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Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band: Landmarks

Mark F. Turner By

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Drummer Brian Blade is a rhythmic force of nature that moves with both fire and finesse. He's contributed to numerous recordings and performances around the globe most notably as a member of the esteemed Wayne Shorter Quartet for over 10 years. Yet at the heart of Blade's own music lies a storyteller delivering tales of poignant rural settings and down-to-earth familiarity expressed through his ongoing Fellowship Band comprised of a close-knit ensemble of friends and stellar jazz musicians. Landmarks is the group's fourth release and a return to Blue Note following its move to Verve for 2008's Season of Changes, after Perceptual (Blue Note, 2000), on which the group adopted the name of Blade's leader debut, also on Blue Note, Fellowship (1998).

The gently stirred mix of folklore, blues, gospel, and jazz are each a part of the Fellowship Band's appeal through compositions that render lasting imagery. The music was penned by Blade and longtime collaborator and pianist Jon Cowherd, two seminal artists that have shared a connection since meeting in college years ago. The result is a wide canvas of thought-provoking tracks.

The images in Landmarks are painted with the geographical and social colors of Blade's hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana, beginning with Cowherd playing mellotron on the surreal opening "Down River," followed by the vastness and warmth of the title track. Contributing Fellowship members each take part in the the track's unfolding: the measured bass intro from Chris Thomas, lush reed harmonies from Myron Walden (alto saxophone, bass clarinet) and Melvin Butler (soprano and tenor saxophone), and Cowherd's spiritually tinged piano solo.

The eleven-minute "Ark.La.Tex." would make the perfect movie soundtrack as it moves through dramatic themes, heady swing, and an ethereal climax right before seguing into the appropriately placed version of the American folk song, "Shenandoah." This same gravitas is found in the serenity of "Friends," where Walden's bass clarinet purrs as Blade issues gentle traps, and the thirteen-minute "Farewell Bluebird," named for a café that Blade frequented during his New Orleans years. It contains a riveting theme with subtle changes that include gritty slide guitar work from Marvin Sewell and a restful repeating hook featuring a deep saxophone solo.

Landmarks is a fine return for the Fellowship Band, whose music continues to evoke substance and feeling through its empathetic leader and his skillful band mates.

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