Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band: “Seasons of Changes”

Brian Blade is one of the best drummers in all of jazz, but to call him that is to sell him a bit short; one could come up with a mightily impressive list of the great jazz musicians he’s worked with, but he’s also the go-to percussionist for Daniel Lanois, and has played with everyone from Emmylou Harris and Buddy Miller to Bob Dylan. He’s not a jazz drummer-he’s a drummer who plays jazz, and a lot of other music besides, and the body of work he’s generated stands as a testament to his versatility and his restless creative spirit.

And it’s only natural that his finest qualities come through not just in his work as a sideman and a session player, but as a bandleader; the long-awaited return of his six-piece Fellowship Band, Seasons of Changes, is a rich, full-bodied recording that finds Blade and his bandmates chasing their muse through country, rock, and pop terrain without ever losing the heart of jazz. It’s stately and elegant, but also spontaneous and improvisational; it’s earthy and it’s accessible, but it’s also ambitious, sophisticated, and, at times, soaring.

Credit is due in equal measure to the sympathetic performances-Blade is joined by pianist Jon Cowherd, guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, bassist Chris Thomas, and the double attack of sax players Melvin Butler and Myron Walden-and also to the writing, which is both complex and accessible; these nine originals, penned by Blade and Cowherd, already feel like dusty gems, jazz compositions that could’ve been written decades ago but still sound edgy and vibrant today. And though the album’s title is accurate in its indication that this is a reflective piece of work-the mood here is pensive, thoughtful-that hardly means it’s listless or boring; Blade and his band gracefully infuse the mid-tempo opener “Rubylou’s Lullaby” with a sultry swing, and “Return of the Prodigal Son” is a spirited outpouring of joy and catharsis that’s as celebratory as its name. The band effortlessly stitched together four disparate pieces into a seamless suite on the title song, and individual band members are given the opportunity to solo on the pure jazz workout “Improvisations” before they come back together for the elegant, spiritual finale of Blade’s “Alpha and Omega” and “Omni.”

Of course, jazz music-even of this caliber-is too often misunderstood and relegated to niche status in today’s music market; after all, it takes patience and active listening to really get the primal, spiritual blues that this music conveys. For those willing to invest the time, however, Seasons of Changes is such a confident and rich statement, it will remind jazz listeners why they fell in love with the genre to begin with, and it makes a compelling case for new fans as well. It’s proof enough that Brian Blade is much more than just a great sideman; he’s an artist of considerable conviction and vision. But more than that, it’s evidence that jazz is not only alive and well, but it’s still exhilarating and creatively vibrant today.

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