Body and Shadow marks only the fifth album in Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band's 20-year history. They have pursued an ensemble-based sound over their entire tenure with remarkable consistency and a dedication to a musical aesthetic whose roots lie in pastoral American forms from folk, blues, and gospel to modern creative jazz. There has been another personnel shift in the guitar chair -- Jeff Parker and Marvin Sewell alternately appeared on 2014's Landmarks, but have in turn been replaced by Denver jazz-rock guitarist Dave Dennis, whose diverse approach is a seamless fit with Blade, keyboardist Jon Cowherd, bassist Chris Thomas, and saxophonists Melvin Butler and Myron Walden. The set was co-produced and arranged by Cowherd and Blade, who split compositional duties.
Blade's set-opener "Within Everything" commences with a languid, almost processional melody articulated by guitar, piano, and saxophones. He and Thomas pace a gentle march even as a country-tinged feel inhabits the hymn-like vibe. Dennis' electric guitar introduces the first part of the title suite (subtitled "Night"), while sustained single notes and controlled feedback engage in barely detectable counterpoint with piano and bassline in waltz time. Its repetitive theme is more interlude than formal composition, and seemingly the only thing that keeps it anchored to earth. (The remaining two parts appear out of sequence later on, and both are equally satisfying for all their spacious pastoral tendencies.) Cowherd's "Traveling Mercies" is one of the album's finest moments, with his majestic chord voicings, fingerpicked guitars, and the interplay of saxophone, bass clarinet, and whispering snare and kick drum. Its articulation resembles that of a folk song until the bridge, which contrasts sharply, adds tension and drama. He also introduces -- via a harmonium solo -- an actual traditional hymn in the two-part "Have Thine Own Way, Lord," arranged by Blade. Using his snare and hi-hat, he manages to keep the gospel feel and yet makes it a fluid dance as the horns offer the melody to just the piano. The eight-plus-minute "Duality" diverges from the Americana path as the sextet shifts tempos and dynamics to engage both post-bop and modal jazz. It hosts a celebratory solo from Cowherd and a deeply soulful one from Walden. Set-closer "Broken Leg Days" is the album's single. A Cowherd composition, its piano and drum opening recalls Pat Metheny's relentless pursuit of euphoria as a motivic notion. When the horns enter, they weave counter melodies in tandem and separately, Dennis' guitar accents the bass, drum, and piano fills, and the rhythm takes on a Latin lilt before Butler delivers a killer tenor break. Body and Shadow presents a gorgeous balance of openness, melodic invention, and intuitive understatement that distinguishes this band from virtually every other jazz act.