Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band: Body and Shadow

Photo: Lurah Blade (Blue Note Records)

The first-call jazz drummer Brian Blade and his longstanding band make a recording that is more mood than movement.

Brian Blade's Fellowship Band has been one of the most interesting proponents of a new jazz, active for 20 years and playing improvised music that avoids almost every cliche. As a drummer, Blade is first-call for elite leaders in both jazz (Wayne Shorter) and Americana (Joni Mitchell). In the Fellowship Band, he works with pianist and composer Jon Cowherd, who has similarly worked with jazz greats and musicians like Rosanne Cash and Daniel Lanois. Most recently, I saw Cowherd with Cassandra Wilson's band, which swings, plays blues, plays folk, but mostly mines the rich soil at the middle of the American collision of musical ideas.

Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band

Body and Shadow

(Blue Note)

Release Date: 10 Nov 2017

That's where this band digs in the dirt too.

In the past, I have adored the way. Blade avoids lapsing into standard jazz rhythmic patterns in favor of a simpler groove that still allows the band to explore strong melodies and collaborative ideas. Landmarks from 2014 was cinematic in its sound, and it used two saxophonists (Myron Walden and Melvin Butler) and moody guitars in a way that was clear but not simple.

Body and Shadow maintains a similar instrumentation, with Chris Thomas on bass and Dan Devine on guitar, but it is stripped down to a folk minimalism too often for my taste. The title track, for example, is long on atmosphere: reverbed guitar chords, echoing soundscape, a ruminative pair of chords alternating, some lines interweaving with artful feedback. But that is it. And more to the point, there are three "Body and Shadows": "Morning", "Noon", and "Night". They're different, sure, featuring different sonorities and arrangements, but none develops much. "Morning" rises over the sonic horizon in an interesting way, to be sure, creeping and inching and sounding like its subject — albeit making the repetition of two chords without much melody do the work. "Night" is my favorite because clarinet and piano state a slow-spinning melody over the vamp and the arrangement is thicker and darker. But, despite the interest in hearing this theme act as the through-line of this album, I grew tired of the repetition more than interested in the variations.

Similarly, the opening track, "Within Everything", starts with interest and atmosphere but provides little more. It sounds, in the end, like really cool graduation music. You can imagine it playing at Sasha Obama's Sidwell Friends School graduation next spring in Washington D.C. — it's a hip school, yes, but it's still conservative Washington and this is a chill tune and not much more. It has a sad, elegiac lilt, but you will find yourself waiting for the singer to come in or for the expressive improvisation to lift it. Alas, it remains the karaoke track for a really great Elvis Costello ballad you just haven't head yet.

Other music here is more traditionally structured. "Traveling Mercies" is a gorgeous tune, played on alto saxophone, relieved by a nice bridge, all draped in keening harmonies and Blade's sensational coloring and Cowherd's just-enough-gospel piano goading. But no sooner is the tune played than they just play it again. Am I a jazz nerd for wanting to hear these great musicians improvise on this attractive theme?

The best performances here are, then, the longest tracks. "Broken Leg Days" develops its melody as a complex and rousing theme, still textured and cinematic but also providing an interesting language for Melvin Butler's tenor saxophone solo. The engine of the rhythm section revs higher as the improvisation and the written horn part overlap and kindle the flames higher. The performance doesn't return to the full theme because it doesn't have to — there is an emotional climax, and then you're eased back to the ground.

"Duality" presents a slightly more terse and frenetic theme that might be from a wide range of contemporary jazz records, with a more traditional (but very strong) jazz solo from Cowherd and then some intriguing twists and turns of arrangement that let the horn players go to town. The contrast between this tune and most of the others is clear — Blade knows this churning modern jazz well, but he also loves music as scene setting, tone poems, quiet portraiture. On Body and Shadow he mostly keeps these things separate, however.

It's a curious choice, given that "Duality" — true to its title, obviously — does both things well. As do other projects that Blade knows well, including Bill Frisell recordings that use his drums and particularly the new recording from cornetist Ron Miles, I Am a Man, on which Blade is critical. Miles's sensibility also calls on impressionism and mood but, relative to Body and Shadow, travels huge swaths of territory in composition, improvisation, and conversations among players. The Fellowship Band, this time out, seems like it is purposely hitting on only a couple cylinders. Blade's intention, I suppose, is to craft a set of miniatures, postcards, musical haikus. Another example: Cowherd plays "Have Thine Own Way, Lord" alone on some kind of organ, then the band plays it — each performance being just over a minute. They are muted, brief, lovely, but...

I pine for this band at its own version of full throttle, which may not roar but certainly soars.


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