Brian Blade Fellowship – Perceptual (2000)

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by Pico

When the phrase “jazz musician from Louisiana” is thrown out, thoughts of New Orleans immediately spring to mind. And while it’s true that NOLA is the state’s, natch, the region’s jazz hub, you can find a few from Up North over in Nick’s neck of the woods who have met success. Take, for example, Shreveport native Brian Blade.

Brian has made quite a name for himself as a sideman drummer, playing for artists ranging from Joshua Redman to Joni Mitchell to Bob Dylan. His style relies more on tone and subtle flourishes instead of speed, power or in-your-face complexity; attributes that are attractive to leaders who need steadiness in their percussion, not co-leaders. But Blade is also a very capable leader himself and the two opportunities he’s taken to be one on an album he’s shown a propensity for melody, mood and ensemble playing.

The Daniel Lanois-produced debut album The Brian Blade Fellowship firmly sets down those principles, but it’s on Perceptual (produced by Blade himself) where such principles are fully realized and executed.

With Melvin Butler on saxes, Kurt Rosenwinkel on guitar, Dave Easley on steel guitar, Christopher Thomas on bass, Jon Cowhred on various keyboards and Myron Walden on woodwinds as the base band, Blade provides a sound that’s unquestionably jazz, but with light splashes of fusion not too unlike early Pat Metheny Group albums. And like classic PMG, Blade emphasizes melody as much as improvision; virtually all of his songs have memorable themes even though many of them shift in tempo and harmonics. Blade never really takes a solo the entire record, either.

The leadoff title track is a slow to mid-tempo track with the theme stated first followed by tasty solos by Rosenwinkel and Butler. The next track “Evinrude-Fifty (Trembling)” is perhaps the finest of the collection; Blade provides some constantly shifting rhythms that propels the sax and piano solos and an odd time signature on the chorus without being the focal point at the expense of the rest of the band.

Easley’s stellar steel guitar solo proves without a doubt there is a place for that instrument in jazz. “Reconciliation” is a ballad featuring some supple soprano sax work from Butler.

“Crooked Creek” is a waltz that finds Rosenwinkel taking an extended solo that’s in the bebop vein but displaying unique style within that vein, followed again by Easley. “Patron Saint Of Girls” is another ballad but much shorter; it’s more of a mood piece that approximates Dylan’s “Knocking On Heaven’s Door” in feel. After the short bass clarinet-led interlude of “The Sunday Boys” comes the extended piece “Variations Of A Bloodline” which is similar to “Evinrude-Fifty” boasts a thematic chorus but a different bridge each go around until 2/3’s through a different theme emerges and Cowhred delivers a fine piano solo.

“Steadfast” features a vocal by Joni but in a curiously unassuming role singing along to the sax and some fuzz guitar by Lanois. The whole proceedings end with a brief semi-reprise of “Evinrude-Fifty” entitled “Trembling”.

In only his second time out, Brian Blade delivered an album that contains many elements of a great jazz album: memorable but challenging compositions, improvision where every note counts, and solid ensemble playing.

He hadn’t released another record since then and someone who is that capable has no business going six years and counting without another release. We can only hope that Blade and his Fellowship will remedy that soon.

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