Brian Blade: “Mama Rosa”

mama-rosa

As a music critic, I always try to evaluate a record within the context of the values and standards of its particular genre; far be it from me to expect a hip-hop record to play by the same rules as a folk record, or, worse yet, to make arbitrary hierarchies in which one style of music is regarded as “better” than another. So understand that, when I say that Brian Blade’s new album Mama Rosa is a minor disappointment, it isn’t because he’s abandoned the searching, spiritual jazz of the Fellowship Band in favor of a smoother, more somber collection of singer-songwriter fare. My disappointment comes simply from the fact that, for the first time, Blade is making music in a world in which his footing isn’t always sure, his normally graceful execution sometimes faltering.

That said, the album is anything but a regression. Even if it flat-out sucked– which it doesn’t, not by a long-shot Blade would still deserve major kudos for having the artistic courage to step away from his drum kit and everything he’s become known for, pick up an acoustic guitar, and sing a collection of deeply personal, autobiographical songs that were never really intended for public consumption. Blade says that it was his long-time mentor and former boss Daniel Lanois who first heard the songs and encouraged Blade to release them; given that they were written as private memoirs and confessions, it’s unsurprising that they have a certain rough quality to them, but that’s part of the album’s charm: Blade is baring not only his soul but an untested, unpolished side of his artistic personality– and God bless the guy, that takes courage.

This is not, by the way, Blade’s Americana album, or even a folk album in the strictest sense of the term: It’s very much a singer-songwriter record, influenced by gospel and R&B and also by muted, confessional albums by the likes of Joni Mitchell, another of Blade’s friends and former employers. And though many members of his Fellowship Band are present– Jon Cowheard on piano and organ, Kurt Rosenwinkel on guitar for a single track– it sounds pretty much nothing like the instrumental jazz albums Blade usually makes. This is muted, at times even morose music, meditative and reflective, often a bit too much so; it far too easily drifts into the ether and becomes mere background music. The musicians are given little room to stretch themselves– after all, they’re really just here to support Blade. And since Blade learned about studiocraft from Daniel Lanois, and co-produces the set with Lanois’ longtime engineer Adam Samuels, it’s unsurprising that the album borrows from Lanois’ own hazy, gauzy sound. At its best, that lends the album a certain warmth, but it just as often blurs the musicians together into a murky elevator music.

Blade writes about faith and family here, paying tribute to the friends and relatives who have shaped him, who raised him, who taught him about Jesus and love. Of course, Blade communicates in a very different way here than he does on his jazz albums– for the first time, his expression isn’t wordless– but what’s interesting is that these songs are very much in keeping with his aesthetic: Last year’s Season of Changes, recorded with the Fellowship Band, explored spirituality and unity with powerful musical themes. On Mama Rosa, the words feel like an extension of Blade’s typical musical tropes, making the album sound oddly like, well, a Brian Blade album, despite its very different musical make-up.

Blade is less expressive and confident as a singer than as a bandleader, but he exudes a sense of intimacy that fits these recordings. Bewilderingly, he ends the album with a pair of weird, droning instrumentals, confirming that while Blade’s adventurousness is the album’s greatest asset, its occasional aimlessness is its chief flaw. And yet, this album is a blessing to have, for what it says about the artist more than for its actual songs: Let it be remembered that Brian Blade is an artist who follows his muse without concern for image or reputation, and if the results are sometimes flawed, the spirit is always right and true.

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