He’s widely acknowledged as one of the best jazz drummers in the world. But he’s also a singer-songwriter; a session man for Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell; the son of a singing preacher man from Louisiana. And though a man of such experiences is, as you might expect, quite busy, he’s also keeps his own signature band: Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band.
In the way that a jazzman’s life often goes into his music, you might expect that a Brian-Blade-led band would reflect and merge all of his overlapping vocabularies. You’d be right, but — this is crucial — not in the overwrought, kitchen sink, jam band kind of way. His is music beloved by the jazz community, distilled to high potency, executed by a frontline (Myron Walden and Melvin Butler on woodwinds) which has committed for well over 15 years and a rhythm section (Chris Thomas, bass and Jon Cowherd, piano) that dates back to college, over two decades ago.
Landmarks is the Fellowship Band’s new album, the fourth in its catalog. To the extent that the Fellowship has a characteristic aesthetic, you might call it rural, and this is no deviation. There are trademark slow-moving pastoral dirges, with faux-naive rhythms which bloom into ecstatic saxophone testifyin’ and firecracker drum fills. There’s the signifying twang of country and folk music cadences, note inflections and guitar overtones (courtesy of Jeff Parker or Marvin Sewell). There are melodies that surge and ebb, harmonium drones and dark bass clarinet lines. It’s music tinged by juke joints and black churches, but better placed in wind-swept open fields and porch sits on summer evenings. One 11-minute swell of a song is even called “Ark.La.Tex.” as in the three Southern states — exactly.
You hear a lot of “growers” from the Fellowship, songs that build to climaxes, and when you have a drummer like Brian Blade, who can break off a brilliant kinetic flash at just about any moment, the tension is delicious. But it’s also telling that he takes “Ark.La.Tex” right into an arrangement of “Shenandoah,” the American folk song. Blade lays out almost entirely, and the band offers it up as a chorale, an act of secular worship. It’s under two minutes, all devastating. And it’s one of many ways he knows how to make a song stick.