Brian Blade


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Over 18 years and three previous albums, drummer Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band has kept its core quintet in saxophonists Myron Walden and Melvin Butler, pianist Jon Cowherd, and bassist Chris Thomas. Landmarks sees the band returning to Blue Note after a brief sojourn with Verve for 2008's Seasons of Changes. The only fluctuations for the group have been in the guitar chair, and the departing Kurt Rosenwinkel has been replaced by either Marvin Sewell or Jeff Parker for this date. The group's raison d'etre has always been to tell narrative musical stories, through jazz based on root American forms. They do so exceptionally here. The Fellowship Band's M.O. has never been about solo virtuosity (though its members possess it abundantly) so much as group interplay. Interestingly, the title track (which follows a short flute-like Mellotron solo intro by Cowherd) commences with a folk-inspired melodic bass solo by Thomas with the pianist accompanying. The band doesn't enter until about 2:30, iterating a song-ish theme followed by economic yet soulful soprano and bass clarinet solos. Cowherd restates the theme before extending his solo in narrative yet questing fashion while Blade dialogues underneath with Thomas in circular rhythm. On "State Lines," Sewell plays an unaccompanied, ambient slide guitar solo with the Delta blues in full view. The 12-minute "Ark. La.Tex." commences on a slowly evolving five-note melodic theme that recalls Jim Pepper's Native American jazz motifs. Blade's tom- toms and the saxophonists gradually expand that theme in rounds with lilting lyric asides and modal considerations until it opens wide. Thomas and Blade move afield as Butler quotes loosely from "A Love Supreme" at the beginning of his tenor solo and the tune gains in momentum with Cowherd's continued comping while subtly exploring the melody. Its theme eventually returns after two more group lyric sidebars. Cowherd's pump organ introduces "Shenandoah," performed with hymn-like restraint -- in striking contrast to their live version. "He Died Fighting" commences with a Blade solo. Its raspy alto and tenor contrast with Sewell's lyrical guitar; it is positively songlike in construction and flow, with a killer bridge interlude. The first 40 seconds of "Friends Call Her Dot" feature Walden's bass clarinet completely solo before Butler and Parker join him in the four-chord motif, driven by Blade's confident understatement. Cowherd and Walden slip off and dazzle with counterpoint before the pianist delivers a dazzling bluesy solo rippling with imagination. Where "Bonnie Be Good" is a slow but gradually dynamic piece that melds modalism and lyric harmony in a folk-like structure (with gorgeous chord voicings from Parker), the short closer "Embers" evokes country music with its circular line via the prismatic lens of gospel. On Landmarks, the Fellowship Band continues its exploration of American folk styles in a highly original, thoroughly modern jazz, rich in harmonic inquiry and rhythmic attraction, with compositions that speak from the mysterious heart of song itself.

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