Artist-Brian Blade Fellowship
Album-Seasons of Changes
Review-Brian Blade last led a recording session with his band Fellowship for Blue Note in 2000. In the interim he's become the busiest drummer in showbiz. Blade has been playing and touring with everyone from Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan to Kenny Garrett and Joshua Redman, and holding the drum chair in Wayne Shorter's fine quartet. Perceptual was an excellent sophomore outing by a sprawling, ambitious yet very focused septet. The Fellowship Band has played together during this time, at festivals all over the world, in New York and New Orleans clubs and halls. Seasons of Changes is the Verve debut of this unit, whose name is now Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band. The personnel from Perceptual all return, save for pedal steel guitarist Dave Easley, who hasn't been replaced. The nine tunes are all originals, written by either Blade or pianist Jon Cowherd (who co-produced the set the leader). The front line is comprised of guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, and saxophonists Myron Walden and Melvin Butler, with bassist Chris Thomas rounding out the rhythm section.
The musical range of this group is vast, as are the influences that inform its individual members, but as a unit they sound like no one else. Their long-term working relationship has paid off handsomely here; these tunes are all bravely voiced and beautifully articulated compositions of modern jazz. (The word "modern" should be translated to mean "in the 2000s era" rather than as an empty signifier that denotes type or subgenre in this context.) These selections have been molded by many different styles of music from the American vernacular: from folk and gospel to pop and soul standards, from country and blues to the spiritual jazz of Coltrane and Strata East, and even rock. But there is no mistaking what Seasons of Changes is. Something this ambitious yet earthy, so sophisticated, yet accessible to virtually any set of ears, could only be jazz.
Blade's "Rubylou's Lullaby" is a midtempo ballad that reflects the gentleness of evening in Rosenwinkel's open six-strings and outlined by Cowherd's piano. The rest of the band enters with a series of almost pastoral notes before the swinging in the drums walks a line between elegiac country music, and a shuffling piano line, and the gorgeous melody articulated by the horns with the pianist's soulful golden fills. There is nothing about this tune that hurries, yet it unfolds into a gorgeous romantic paean that manages to swing and contain some stellar breaks by Blade. The short solo by Cowherd is almost majestic. The pianist's "Return of the Prodigal Son" feels based more on the great painting by Rembrandt depicting the gospel story than it does on the text. Here, nicely flowing lines between the horns intersect with the piano's ostinati and evoke a sense of travel, finding an open space and just moving toward it. Rosenwinkel begins a solo that hints at some of the slightly chaotic blowing by Butler on the tenor, and held in place by the rhythm section, which begins to assert itself in earnest. The alto saxophone acts as a counterweight to the seeming chaos and translates between the two poles. It's not a battle but a dispute, where balances are tenderly kept for a little while, but as Cowherd's brief solo enters, a cappella, the sense of return, harmony, and forgiveness are voiced effusively in the ensemble's balanced sense of voice and harmony.
The title track, which is the longest thing here, is also the most ambitious. It begins with Cowherd (its composer) playing a simple yet almost melancholy progression. Bass clarinet by Walden, tenor saxophone, and Blade's tom-toms slowly rumble in this balladic dirge before his cymbal begins to start the pace. It's sectioned several times over, each section folding out of the last, and when the saxophones and Rosenwinkel decide to play as one, the theme becomes the lift-off point for a series of interlocking grooves that are almost like separate songs except for their seamless weave. This tune swings despite its many dynamic changes and time shifts. It is simply a transcendent composition and this band plays it like everything depends on it — because it does. Rosenwinkel's style has evolved so much that he has become a truly original voice on the guitar, no matter which tone or effects he employs, nor the tempo, key, dynamic or groove. He's in the pocket, and his playing just sings.
The set closes with the slowly awakening power of Blade's "Omni" as the welcome home after the album's long journey through the soul. Clusters of layered chords by Cowherd enhance deep harmonic drones by the horns, while Thomas provides the root note on his bass and Blade's cymbals embellish it all. It is the opening of a deep river of song. Walden transforms it into a hearty blues wail as Rosenwinkel supports his sweet but inquisitive hollers on the horn, which reaches into the heavens. When he feels he's been heard, the tune shifts. It gradually brightens in shade and tone. Cowherd's simple piano solo offers the response as the ensemble surrounds him to bring it all back to the earth as Blade whispers through his cymbals and snare. Rosenwinkel and Thomas allow this new song to whisk its way through the entire band before disappearing into a rustling wind voiced by muted, bowed bass. There isn't a jazz record out there like this, and perhaps there won't be; this is the place where the argument stops: jazz is not only alive and well, it is on the verge of an entirely new adventure; Seasons of Changes is the aural proof of a new, exciting sound that offers new possibilities for jazz is in our midst. Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band are sounding its cry.
Sunday, May 11, 2008
Brian Blade Fellowship--Seasons of Changes (2008)
Artist-Brian Blade Fellowship