Music Review: Brian Blade

Appeared in the September 2008 edition of DownBeat, an internationally circulated jazz magazine.

For most drummer-led ensembles, the idea of an album with nary a drum solo smacks of sacrilege. For Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band, though, individual vainglory has always been trumped by a strong sense of collective purpose. Season Of Changes skillfully continues the trend and marks the group’s first outing in eight years. Among the changes this season: The septet has been trimmed to six with the departure of pedal steel player Dave Easley, who added salt-of-the-earth ambiance on the group’s first two discs.

In keeping with the Fellowship Band’s contemplative esthetic, the new release is steeped in spiritual yearning. Blade interlaces his compositions with dramatic flair and soft sobriety, asserting himself on the skins when needed but never overwhelming the group’s tender balance of voices. The album’s compositional jewels come from pianist Jon Cowherd. On the epic title track and “Return Of The Prodigal Son,” Cowherd’s weighty melodic statements channel both elegiac and joyous spirits, all over a harmonic framework that invites probing, occasionally soaring solos from guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, alto saxophonist Myron Walden and tenor saxophonist Melvin Butler.

“Rubylou’s Lullaby” eases the listener into the album nicely with stark piano and guitar, but needs more edge once tenor and bass clarinet join in with the melody—the reeds sound a little too sweet for their own good. Although a few moments on Season of Changes verge on melodrama, the album as a whole is a genuinely moving piece of work. Rarely does such unabashedly serious, artful music come in such a listenable package.