Friday, June 6, 2014

Breaking Out of Genre: Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band's Landmarks

Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band (Photo by Kristian Hill)

Is it possible to create music that goes beyond category? For the editors of Downbeat Magazine, who create a separate category for such a notion in their annual polls, the answer is an unqualified "yes." For drummer and composer Brian Blade, it could be the boundary-free category that best describes his music and his band because the category of jazz is simply not the best descriptor.

Landmarks (Blue Note) is the most recent release from the superlative, Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band. It's a thoughtful exploration of "place," geographically and emotionally speaking. This blend of nostalgia and location goes a long way on Landmarks, a concept album that took years to make, but worth the patience and investment of time required. The reason is entirely based on leader Brian Blade's demanding schedule. Blade is constantly working. He's principle drummer for Daniel Lanois and he's in demand as an arranger and bandleader for special projects, including the 2013 tribute to Joni Mitchell held in Massey Hall in Toronto. He also plays for the unstoppable Wayne Shorter. So when he gets the chance to record with the Fellowship Band, it's an opportunity he rarely gives up. Brian Blade leads the group, drums, with Jon Cowherd, piano, Melvin Butler, reeds, Chris Thomas, double bass and Myron Walden, bass clarinet and saxophone. For this record, guitarists, Melvin Sewell and Jeff Parker, complement the band.

The album immediately draws you in with a short, organ introduction called "Down River," a lovely yet quirky sound of Jon Cowherd on pump organ. The intro leads into a marvelous extended composition called "Landmarks" giving us a gentle 3-quarter sway into the core of the album. Chris Thomas plays a solo bass part that is shrouded in mystery until the band kicks in with supplementary harmonies. It's a great piece that leads us to a short embellished guitar solo from Marvin Sewell called "State Lines." But it simply opens the door to the 3-part composition called, "Ark.La.Tex." "Ark.La.Tex" stands for three American states, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas and they all have significance for Blade, who's own landmark is Shreveport, Louisiana. While this work is more of a pastiche than a literal representation of the three states, it's music that has deeper connections. It's in the soil, as it were.

To emphasize the point, Blade has placed the classic American folk tune, "Shenandoah" in the middle of the record. It's a nice arrangement for horns and guitar. It a way, it closes the more rural sounds of the record leading to a heavier, urban feel from a Blade composition called, "Farewell Bluebird." Landmarks closes with two hopeful sounding works, "Bonnie Be Good" and 'Embers," which bookend the record really well. The last track runs under three minutes, but is sophisticated enough to sound deeper. I can see that song opening up more in performance, as the band is eager to breakout and solo, much as this album breaks out of category.

- John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra. He's currently writing a book about Frank Zappa for Backbeat Books.

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