The Best in Jazz 2008: Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band
In part 1 of The Hurst Review’s eight-part end-of-the-year musical wrap-up, we celebrate the year’s finest offering from a genre that we don’t cover nearly as much as we’d like to: Jazz. The end-of-the-year retrospective will continue off and on for the next month.
Brian Blade writes these words on the back cover of Perceptual, his second album as leader of the Fellowship Band: “The sound that we make together is a symbol of the compassion and joy we all need to live together… [because] we are all connected.” That sort of heart-on-sleeve spirituality is hardly surprising coming from a man like Blade– the son of a preacher– nor is it out of place on the sleeve of a jazz album; the genre has been marked by a searching, fervent spirituality at least since Coltrane cut A Love Supreme, if not longer. But whether one hears the music of the Fellowship Band as profoundly spiritual or simply as superb jazz music, it’s hard to deny that the statement reveals much about Blade, a man who makes an unlikely bandleader not just because he’s a drummer, but, more than anything, because he seems like a genuinely humble, egoless individual.
It’s that humility, that generosity of spirit, that informs the third album from the Fellowship Band, the reflective and soul-searching work Season of Changes. It’s not just that Blade, despite being the nominal leader of the band, continually relegates himself to a supporting role in his own music; on one of the album’s nine tracks, he doesn’t even play, and there are no show-offy solos or flashy drum fills here, as Blade concerns himself with adding color and texture through his deeply expressive percussion work. No, it’s not just that, but also the fact that he allows his pianist, Jon Cowherd, to pen half of the album’s tracks, even the title cut. It’s the fact that Blade leads by example, and by allowing every voice to be heard, making Season of Changes an unparalleled and unmatched work of musical democracy, one in which every member of the troupe feels like an equal, partners and collaborators with no showboaters or scene-stealers in their midst.
But if this is music about democracy, it’s also an album about unity, as Blade’s Fellowship Band seems to play with a stunningly singular voice. All the years they’ve spent playing together can be heard in every note here, as each one brings a sympathetic, graceful performance to the table that results in a jazz recording of uncommon harmony. This can be heard in the long, free-spirited and improvisational numbers like the title song and “Return of the Prodigal Son,” in which band members alternate solos, borrowing as much from Miles Davis’ modal experimentation as from Coltrane’s spiritual jazz, but also in the short numbers, which are jazz through and through despite being rooted in country, gospel, and rock. These compositions reveal the full depth of Blade’s inclusive, all-encompassing musical vision; they’re not flashy genre experiments, but simply the products of a group of musicians who are too open-hearted and generous in spirit to recognize artificial boundaries, in their lives or in their music.
Which, paradoxically, means that it’s the purest and most potent jazz record of 2008, and truly a seminal work– never before has there been a jazz album anything like it, nothing to match the profound spirituality of its performances, the rich sophistication of its compositions, the sense of harmony encapsulated in its gentle but exploratory spirit. It’s the kind of album that feels like it appeared out of nowhere and could never again be duplicated, which, of course, makes it nothing short of a small, wonderful treasure.