Given the state of the music business in 2009, it would seem a terrible decision to allow an award-winning jazz drummer, composer, and bandleader -- not to mention an in-demand session musician -- to record what amounts to a "pop" album. Yet that's exactly what Verve's Forecast imprint did when it let Brian Blade, leader of the Fellowship Band, one of its premier showcase acts, record Mama Rosa. And thank God they did. Blade has been writing and recording songs on two-track and four-track demos for decades. He's been singing them for friends and family members for about as long. Blade is a natural born storyteller with an evocative singing voice, an individual and polished guitar style, and real estate with enough fine musicians to bring them into his projects. This is music that has heart, melody, and sophisticated and well-intentioned lyric poetry, and these songs are concerned with what it means to try and live alone and with others in the light each day. Produced by Blade and Adam Samuels, this lovely, understated, 13-song set (ten vocal tracks, three instrumentals -- two of them brief ambient pieces -- and a lone cover) is staffed by great players: Daniel Lanois, Greg Leisz, Daryl Johnson, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Jon Cowherd, and Chris E. Thomas of the Fellowship Band, Kelly Jones, Tucker Martine, Jenny Lee Lindberg, Aaron Embry, and Patrick Smith. The songs are mostly slow to middle tempo ballads that are kissed only slightly by anything resembling jazz (mostly in the atmospherics and in the piano charts), but are anchored more deeply in rock, folk, and other roots music with guitars and drums playing the primary roles.
With its languid intro, the opener "After the Revival" offers a reverb-laden tale of the namesake of this album, Blade's grandmother, Rosa. It's a slow shuffling whisper of a tune with lovely guitars, both acoustic and electric, underscoring a tale of family and faith, and faith is at the heart of most of Blade's songs here. It is followed by the gorgeous "Mercy Angel," a love song to be sure, but not of the usual variety. Blade's piano, guitar, and drums are aided by Lanois' electric solo guitar and bass work, and the high lonesome duet work of Jones, who helps to make the meaning of the song even more ambiguous. It could be a love song to God, to another spiritual benefactor, or to the Beloved. The balance of earth and sky are felt best in the larger ensemble piece "At the Centerline," where Blade, in a quintet with Cowherd, Thomas, Lanois, and Geoffrey Moore, is accompanied by a four-part backing chorus in a tune that weaves old-school African-American gospel (pre Thomas Dorsey), New Orleans style funeral chants, rock, and minor mode folk-blues in a haunting, shimmering, dirge that is perhaps the finest moment on the album. Other notables include a wonderfully unexpected and highly original cover of Milton Nasciemento's "Brother" that has been completely rearranged but is nonetheless utterly recognizable, the stripped down solo acoustic number "Natural Law," the more rockist instrumental, "Struggling with That," and a simple, country-styled paean to the Statue of Liberty called "Her Song" with smokin' guitar work by Lanois. Chances are, most fans of his work as a jazzman will take scant notice of this -- their loss. Others, who have admired the work of songwriters such as Lanois, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn, Buddy Miller, Robbie Robertson, and others will find Mama Rosa to be a welcome addition to their collections.