Brian Blade the bandleader returns for a ride down 'Kings Highway'
Halfway through the title track of Kings Highway, the majestic new album by Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band, there comes a passage of answering banter between the two saxophonists in the group. Myron Walden, on alto, sounds vinegary and imploring, like someone building a rhetoric out of bedrock convictions. Melvin Butler, on tenor, gives a warmer and more level-headed impression but with no less fervency — especially as the exchange builds steam, with the saxophonists no longer trading four-bar provocations but joining in a testifying clamor.
That vision of spirited convergence is true to form for this band, which hasn't wavered in its calling since Blue Note released Brian Blade Fellowship 25 years ago. What many listeners expected at the time from Blade, an alert and supple drummer, was some variation on the brisk, boundless modern jazz he'd been playing with artists like the saxophonist Joshua Redman. A clue to his different thinking was in the name, Fellowship, which hinted at the Southern gospel of his upbringing as well as elements of Laurel Canyon folk-rock. "There's a protected naivete about the music," wrote Ben Ratliff in a live review of Blade's cohort for The New York Times in 2000 — hastening to add that there was nothing naive about how the music was played.
Blade began his bandleading career not only as a young jazz torchbearer but also a prized collaborator for Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, among others. There's a special attunement to dynamic subtlety and lyrical phrase required of any drummer in that singer-songwriterly space, and Blade is one of the best to ever do it. (It surely matters that he is a singer and a songwriter himself, as he explores with his project Mama Rosa.) One remarkable thing about The Fellowship Band is how it captures that same sense of breath and emotional expressivism with an instrumental music most observers would file under contemporary jazz. This feels almost like a magic trick, and it's something Blade could take credit for, if he were the sort to seek credit. (Listen to the first single from Redman's forthcoming album, on which he plays.)
The Fellowship Band has an essential copilot in Jon Cowherd, a pianist and composer who shares Blade's attraction to pastoral uplift and thoughtful design — the Lyle Mays to his Pat Metheny, as it were. Cowherd has served as musical director for some recent Joni tributes; he understands the terrain. He and Blade have jointly produced every Fellowship album since Perceptual, in 2000. Next to Blade, he is the most prolific contributor to the band's catalog, including a couple of keepers on Kings Highway, like the glowing waltz "People's Park."
The Fellowship Band has changed personnel just a smidge over the years, in the pivotal guitar chair. (An early iteration of the group also featured pedal steel.) Kings Highway has Blade on drums, Cowherd on piano, Butler and Walden on reeds, Christopher Thomas on bass, and Kurt Rosenwinkel on guitar. This is the same lineup heard on the third Fellowship album, Season of Changes, from 2008 — and on a stirring testament, live from the archives * BOOTLEG June 15, 2000, which Blade released on his Stoner Hill label last year. You could call it Fellowship Classic. By most measures, it's the finest manifestation of the group.
Kings Highway was recorded at Fantasy Studios in 2018, during a productive stretch when Blade and Cowherd also worked together on Volumes l & ll Now! and Forevermore Honoring Bobby Hutcherson — a tribute to one of jazz's greatest vibraphonists, and a mutual touchstone. No telling why it took five years for each of those releases to see daylight, but they attest to Blade's quiet confidence in the driver's seat. As a composer, he doesn't shy away from the hero's journey: "Kings Highway," which has been a staple of the Fellowship Band's book for several years, runs to 13 minutes, with myriad shifts in meter, tempo and mood. An even longer piece, "Migration," takes full advantage of the expressive potential in the Walden-and-Butler blend, as well as the quicksilver eloquence of Rosenwinkel's style on electric guitar.
But Blade also finds success with concision, notably on "Look to the Hills," which works in some of the harmonic language of a mentor, the late Wayne Shorter, while moving from a skittery initial pulse toward a grand, anthemic finish. As he has on previous Fellowship releases, Blade finds a fitting place for a spiritual, the 19th century hymn "God Be With You (Till We Meet Again)," played as straight as one could imagine, with Cowherd on a pump organ and Blade barely intimating a slow march on his snare drum. "May the Shepherd's care enfold you," goes one line of that hymn, which in Blade's version goes unspoken yet very clearly expressed.
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