Brian Blade Showcases Innovative Spirit at Old Town School of Folk Music
Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band were two-thirds of the way through a North American spring tour when they played to a packed house at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music on March 15. The quintet moved from subtle to ecstatic during the course of its 90-minute set, which featured compositions from its upcoming Blue Note disc, Landmarks. That album, the Fellowship Band’s fourth, is slated for a summer release.
Most of the concert revolved around the band’s resourcefulness and innovative spirit in creating a wide array of textures and subtly reshaping different core musical elements. As one of the most melodically thoughtful drummers in jazz, Blade makes all of his band’s disparate ideas sound part of a unified compositional whole.
Perhaps announcing the band’s ongoing evolution was the message at the beginning of the set, which started with the title track of the upcoming disc and also included “Season Of Changes,” the title cut from the group’s 2008 album. On “Landmarks,” Jon Cowherd’s piano chords and Blade’s cymbal hits framed Myron Walden’s low-end notes on bass clarinet and Melvin Butler’s oblique soprano lines. (Butler is also a professor in the music department at the University of Chicago.) Blade’s snare and cymbal strikes shaped the piece, which sounded never far from meditative in tone. Then, during Blade’s solo, he moved from sticks to a muted, bare-handed approach before Walden’s alto saxophone lead emphasized sudden shifts in volume and delivery.
Throughout the concert, Cowherd reaffirmed why he has been so valuable to the Fellowship as both a composer and group player. Switching from piano to pump organ, his eerie minor-key tone became chilling in the context of Blade’s quiet shadings and Walden’s bass clarinet lines. Then, moving back to piano, Cowherd’s blues-inflected chord changes framed Butler’s tenor lines and Walden’s alto harmonies. Later, the pianist and Blade gradually built their heated exchange from bassist Christopher Thomas’ repeated arco notes. After the show, Blade marveled that this tour began at Loyola University in New Orleans, where he and Cowherd met in 1989.
Blade’s group ended the performance with two clear nods to his musical, and familial, roots. Gospel infused the still-unrecorded “Let It Shine,” with handclaps meeting Thomas’ syncopated bass slaps and Walden and Butler’s upbeat call-and-response sounding straight from the pews. For an encore, the band performed Blade’s “Friends Called Her Dot,” a stirring ballad that the drummer composed for his mother.