Review: Fellowship Band plays impressive Skidmore gig
SARATOGA SPRINGS Brian Blade is the everything man.
The 42-year-old, Louisiana-born drummer has played almost every kind of music with almost everybody, including a folk-jazz duo with Joni Mitchell and Emmylou Harris’s rock-country crew Spyboy. He last played here with Wayne Shorter’s quartet, perhaps the most highly regarded band in jazz, at the Freihofer’s Jazz Festival at Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
He brought his own Fellowship Band to Skidmore’s Zankel Music Center on Friday in a presentation of impressive quality and range.
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.
As fine as the reeds were — and both were seriously fine, Butler a smooth player and Walden a bit more raw — the core of the band could have carried the show easily. Blade founded the Fellowship Band with Cowherd and their closeness was every bit as tight as how Blade locked with bassist Chris Thomas.
Blade is the Tony Williams of our time, leading and guiding without showing off. Beyond his ability to steer, hear and respond — in fact far beyond in importance — was how he accompanied not only the music but the feelings in it. This was never obvious or pushy but seemed instead a highly refined emotional sensitivity and supportiveness. He had technique to burn, but he never overheated a song, nor laid back so much that the energy sagged.
Strong to the end, they closed with new tunes “Goodbye Bluebird” and “Friends Call Her Dot;” Blade called the latter, their encore, a lullaby, but it was pretty exciting.
Blade and his Fellowship Band are as fine a straight-ahead jazz group as the scene can boast right now, strong players at every position, a honed ensemble crispness and a deep investment in Blade’s traditionally melodic and rhythmically hyper-advanced vision.
Want more? Blade plays tonight in the Jenny Scheinman Trio (her, him and Bill Frisell) in New York, then with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Dave Holland in Seattle on April 4.