May 16 2014
It’s the quiet confidence displayed by the Brian Blade Fellowship on their new album Landmarks that most stands out, especially when viewed in the context of their development from disc to disc.
The Fellowship’s self-titled debut introduced this new sound, a moody type of post-jazz that incorporated elements of rock. blues, folk, and gospel in an impressionistic display of evocative melodies and determined tempos. There were some glimpses of the majesty yet to come, but there were also hesitant compositions, as if by not being entirely sure what they had before them, the ensemble seemed to hold something back, perhaps deciding that unnecessary restraint was a lesser sin than presumptuous dramatics.
Their sophomore release Perceptual displayed a markedly self-assured plan of attack, hinting that the Fellowship were more attuned to their sound and vision. This was evidenced with an elevated lyricism, but also by a strongly accentuated moody ambiance throughout the course of the album… of the ensemble superimposing their perspective over the landscape of notes.
That vision came fully into focus on their third recording Season of Changes. It was an album that painted in broad strokes while sketching laser beam melodies into the canvas. Resonant melodies opened songs, then were allowed to go off wandering, perhaps never to return, perhaps sending a postcard home as a reminder. Rhythms surged with intensity regardless of whether a song built up to a dramatic rise and descent or patiently exuded one resounding soulful note after the other. Season of Changes was a bold album, both as a treatise on what a new era of jazz composition could be, but also in the demeanor of the musicians who presented it, giving some indication that they were aware of the power of their sound and were confident in how to wield it.
Now, on their 2014 release Landmarks, the Brian Blade Fellowship is no less bold, no less inventive or lyrical with their music, but apply their craft with a bit more finesse, a bit more thoughtfulness, with an especial care given to the quiet nobility that lies beneath each proclamation. As before, the Fellowship takes on risks, but with a quiet confidence that allows them to cloak those risks in subtlety, to let the strength of nuance speak for itself and in its own way.
Your album personnel: Brian Blade (drums), Jon Cowherd (piano), Myron Walden (alto sax, bass clarinet), Melvin Butler (soprano & tenor sax), Chris Thomas (bass), Marvin Sewell (guitar), and Jeff Parker (guitar).
Are there still dramatic builds of intensity on Landmarks? Oh yes. “He Died Fighting” builds up to the sky. Sewell’s guitar strikes with dramatic sweeps, accentuating both tempo and harmony, while Fellowship co-founder Jon Cowherd‘s simple riffs on piano transition through a series of permutations. And as they’ve done so often before, the dramatic swells of Butler and Walden on tenor and bass clarinet, alternating between a soar and a flutter, intertwining in ascent and harmonizing as they fall in unison.
Bassist Chris Thomas has also been with the Fellowship since the beginning. Repeatedly, he illustrates a talent for the pithy phrasings on bass, using his solo moments to tell tiny stories, sing short refrains of a potent lyricism, sometimes formed from the base of the melody, sometimes offering up an alternate view of what the melody could have been. He gets right to this role on title-track “Landmarks,” yet another display of how bass can play an essential role in an ensemble beyond that of timekeeper.
There is a strong sense of album continuity with the Fellowship recordings. Short phrases, especially on piano, seem to echo phrases of other songs, including those on past albums. The soulful bass clarinet interlude of “Shenandoah” ripples across the album much like “Alpha and Omega” did on Season of Changes. And that album’s title track opens out with a solemn keyboard introduction not that far removed from from Landmarks’ “Ark.La.Tex,” with both shedding the moody intro and vaulting into greater expressiveness. Some of this is due to the fact that the core of the Fellowship has remained intact over the course of the ensemble’s existence, but equally constructive is the Fellowship’s songwriting talents, that they can make that solemn introduction linger over every note that follows it, even if what follows burns at a much hotter temperature.
Interspersed throughout the album are brief interludes, serving as vignettes for the imaginary landscape Blade constructs. It adds to the overarching personality of the album without actually displaying qualities of an individualistic nature. It’s a characteristic of Landmarks that diverges from its predecessors, especially that of Season of Changes and Perceptual.
The songs of Landmarks possess a mind-hive mentality, each strengthening the entirety of the album without necessarily stretching out and emerging with their own individual persona. And while this approach does deprive the album of the epic twists and turns of previous recordings, there is a stunning majesty to an album construct in which beginnings and ends of songs are made fuzzy and indistinguishable by the echoes of refrains and the slow bloom of recurring ideas into a massive, singular point of view. Landmarks displays a transition from expressions of the epic to the shaping of an experience. That’s where the subtlety and nuance prove their importance and illustrate their power.
The absence of guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and pedal steel man Dave Easley is felt on this recording. The Fellowship makes solemn, moody music, a quality that remains even when it unleashes a burgeoning intensity. Rosenwinkel’s thick, bright electric guitar notes provided an essential balance, and it’s missed on Landmarks. And Easley’s pedal steel, with its sly, shimmering twang, added definition to the shape of music that behaved like smoke, thick and ephemeral, its motion hypnotic and its presence heavy.
Sharing guitar responsibilities for this album are Jeff Parker and Marvin Sewell, who snap into place with the Fellowship. And this shouldn’t be entirely surprising in light of that fact that Parker was there for the Fellowship’s self-titled debut, when it all began. On a track like “Friends Call Her Dot,” the steel stringed guitar of Parker provides such a susurant effect that it greatly mitigates Rosenwinkel’s absence. The quiet musings of “Dot” possesses yet another of those deceptively simple riffs strong enough to carry an entire song.
Marvin Sewell adds the steel strings on “Goodbye Bluebird.” The breezy sing-song melody is a welcome relief to an album with a weighty presence, and even when that ambling cadence shifts into a grinding blues, the differentiation doesn’t mar the album’s cohesion the slightest. This is an album where the rises and falls are gradual and sightlines extend out in both directions… even the surprises have an expectation to them.
The album ends with the cheerful “Embers,” a rare occurrence of a song with a sunny attitude. It’s a two-minute smile, and ends a remarkably substantive album with a nice lighthearted touch.
Released on Blue Note Records.