LIVE: Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band @ Skidmore’s Zankel Music Center, 3/22/13

Brian Blade (photo by J Hunter)
Brian Blade

Review and photographs by J Hunter

It was one of those days where I couldn’t help channeling Marvin the Paranoid Android from Douglas Adams’ timeless classic “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”: “Life… Don’t talk to me about life!” My general outlook was in the basement, and my opinion of the human race was heading straight for the Earth’s core. I needed more than a pep talk; I needed a spiritual airlift. Enter Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band… thank Whoever!

I first encountered Brian Blade at a Joshua Redman concert I emceed the night before my birthday in 1994, and he’s confounded me ever since. His drumming style is unlike anything on the scene today, and the inability to stuff Blade in the standard round hole is one of two reasons why I love him to pieces. The other reason is the dynamic 2008 release Season of Changes, which was Blade’s first recording with the Fellowship Band in eight years. Season packs a remarkable combination of power and redemption, and it doesn’t hurt that it features amazing performances by Jazz2K stalwarts like guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and reed wizard Myron Walden. Rosenwinkel didn’t make last Friday’s gig at Zankel, but the night didn’t suffer in the least.

The Fellowship Band doesn’t try to knock you out of the box in the traditional way – i.e. play hard-charging tunes that blind you with their ability to play fast and loud – and that pattern held with the opening tune “Stoner Hill.” There are passages of absolute majesty in Blade’s composition, to be sure, but the overall feeling has the reverence and humility you find in all Fellowship Band pieces. “Stoner” was a tone-setter for what was to follow, with pianist Jon Cowherd’s played simple chords while Walden and multi-instrumentalist Melvin Butler laid down a blissful harmonic that said, “Come on in. It’ll do you good!”

Cowherd’s multi-movement title track from Season never really goes beyond the mid-tempo, but the resounding chord changes and vibrant solos grab you by your emotional lapels and say, “Pay attention, please!” Cowherd started the piece in the clear, playing soft, deep chords that evoked Koln Concerts-era Keith Jarrett while the rest of the group stood or sat perfectly still, eyes closed and listening hard. They did join Cowherd briefly, building briefly on Cowherd’s figures, but then they all fell back to let Blade work his cymbals, building tension until he played them into the soaring brilliance of the piece’s next section.

Butler’s tenor sax was mellow and rich at the start, with Chris Thomas’ bass pulsating underneath, but Butler slowly amped it up, working wider and higher until you wanted to jump out of your seat. As good as Butler’s performance was, it paled in comparison to the sheer alto madness that was to follow. Geoffrey Keezer has referred to Walden’s more boisterous solos as “when Myron goes to Myronland!” The almost-full house received a high-flying, death-defying tour of Myronland: It was a call, a wail, a primal scream from the deepest reaches in the soul. When you’re sure he can’t take it any higher, Walden finds another gear and bursts through the sound barrier like the Hulk going through cheap wallboard. And if anyone in the house thought it was a fluke, he repeated the process on “Farewell, Bluebird,” one of three great new pieces Blade mixed into his 90-minute set. I watched two Skidmore students laughing and bouncing in the front row during the latter tune, totally lost in the moment and uncaring if they were ever found.

The music is secular and spiritual at the same time, taking the time-honored process of applying jazz idioms to “church music” and flipping it 180 degrees. “Landmarks” started with Thomas’ solo “testimony” while Blade worked with brushes underneath him, and was followed by Walden widening the bottom on bass clarinet while Butler worked the high end on soprano. In the case of the old chestnut “Shenandoah,” it was all church, all the time, with Walden and Butler adding light and color to the hushed meditation Cowherd weaved on pump organ. “Peace be with you” was the underlying message, and “glorious” doesn’t even begin to cover both the piece and the feeling it engendered.

Whether he was keeping the foundation simple and ethereal on “Stoner” or nailing his part of a three-way counter on “Farewell,” Blade was having the best time, a massive grin on his face as he launched a stuttering figure here, dropped a bomb there, and generally pushed his quintet to whatever the next level might be. This music has a transformational effect, and Blade is right in its nerve center, which must be a heady experience indeed. That there’s new music coming from this band is welcome news, because another eight-year waiting period is simply unacceptable. But even if it wasn’t – and if all we got was the soul-cleansing sounds Blade and the Fellowship Band had made before – that still would have been enough to make me walk out of Zankel with smile on my face and a better outlook on my outlook… and even if that was only temporary, it was both welcome and enough.

Rudy Lu’s photographs at Albany Jazz
Excerpt from Michael Hochanadel’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Most tunes started and returned to deliberate tempos, often launched by Jon Cowherd’s lyrical piano — though he played a mini-organ to introduce ‘Shenendoah’ in a hymn-like reading that recalled the fact that Blade’s father is a preacher and that he himself first heard music in church. ‘Shenendoah’ wasn’t the only tune with a church-y dignity and heft. Their opener, ‘Stoner Hill,’ could have been funeral music for a goddess, a short, serene warm-up with no solos and reedmen Myron Walden and Melvin Butler playing in harmony, cozy and warm. ‘Season of Changes’ changed up the solemnity of ‘Stoner Hill,’ as if to trace the life of that goddess in vivid emotional detail. This grew wings, soaring into a rambunctious fugue, sprouting solos that went fairly far outside, Walden running rapid scales on alto as Butler hewed closer to the head. The new ‘Landmarks’ featured Walden’s bass clarinet, with Butler’s soprano sax harmonizing sweetly. The horns blended beautifully in the recap and after-the-wave coda. ‘Shenendoah’ had a different blend, bass clarinet and tenor, and Blade didn’t play at all, just basking in its melody.”

Myron Walden
Myron Walden
Jon Cowherd (photo by J Hunter)
Jon Cowherd
Myron Walden and Melvin Butler (photo by J Hunter)
Myron Walden and Melvin Butler
Brian Blade and Chris Thomas
Brian Blade and Chris Thomas
Melvin Butler (photo by J Hunter)
Melvin Butler
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