As one of the most in-demand drummers in the world — jazz and otherwise — it can be a little understandable if Brian Blade hadn’t come forth with an album since 2009’s sublime singer-songwriter excursion Mama Rosa.
That doesn’t make the wait between releases much easier, and it’s been longer still since his celebrated folk-jazz ensemble Fellowship had anything new to say: Season of Changes came out the year before.
Landmarks (out April 29, 2014) isn’t just the return of Brian Blade nor a return of the Brian Blade Fellowship, it’s also a return to the historic Blue Note label that was home for the first two Fellowship albums. Keyboardist Jon Cowherd, bassist Chris Thomas, and saxophonists Myron Walden and Melvin Butler are back as well (Jeff Parker and Marvin Sewell take turns on guitar for the departed Kurt Rosenwinkel). Most importantly, that Fellowship sound is back.
Part of this “Fellowship brand” means that Blade doesn’t do a lot of the showy drum stuff in his band; he prefers to emphasize the down-home harmonic charms of these songs and a lot of band democracy. If you listen closely enough, though, you’ll know there’s a world class drummer behind that kit. During Walden’s alto sax solo on “Ark. La. Tex.,” the real action is happening underneath by Thomas and Blade whereby Blade piles on tasteful fills while conversing with Thomas’ bass the whole time. Blade can also be heard soloing effectively behind Cowherd’s piano solo during “Farewell Bluebird.”
The title song, following a brief opening ambient passage “Down River,” is Fellowship democracy in action. Written not by Blade but rather his ol’ Loyola University classmate Cowherd, Cowherd composed a simply stated folk tune full of understated beauty first from Thomas’ emotive bass shapes to Walden’s bass clarinet to Cowherd’s Big Easy glazed piano underpinned Blade’s own sublime tom-tom textures.
In fact, any song here tells a story without words. A little skip in Blade’s snare/tom-toms march ushers in “He Died Fighting.” The horn verses could have easily been replaced by sung lyrics, illustrating Blade’s singer-songwriter approach to composing, and Walden’s surging sax solo leads the tune to a bracing crescendo. “Farewell Bluebird” is perhaps jazziest song, still retaining a gospel-folk quality in the melody. Sewell uncorks not a jazz guitar solo, but a swampy blues slide one and Butler’s sax solo is lyrical and expressive. And Parker’s tremolo guitar discreetly adds an affectional current to “Bonnie Be Good” that Rosenwinkel used to bring to the table.
Like all Brian Blade Fellowship records, I still get hung up at first on whether this is really “jazz,” as the chord progressions don’t say “jazz” and neither do Blade’s deceptive, understated rhythms. That dilemma quickly evaporates when giving in to its folksy appeal. Landmarks doesn’t tear down artificial barriers as much as ignores them in its sweetly mellow way.