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Published: 2008/07/08
by Dan Alford

Brian Blade and The Fellowship Band, The Village Vanguard, NYC- 6/22

Climbing out off the southern entrance of the 14th Street subway station, listening to “Most Precious One” off Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band’s new disc Season of Changes, I have the city sense that someone’s coming up from behind me, and I turn to see a long limbed Brian Blade himself in black bell bottoms and a bright blue suede jacket taking the steps three at a time- a good omen, I smile, as I watch him run down the street to the Vanguard. Inside, I see Joshua Redman chatting with bass clarinet/alto sax player Myron Walden. Redman and Blade have a long standing collaboration. In fact, the two just played this very room not three months back, along with bassist Rueben Rogers, to support Redman’s own excellent 2008 release Back East- a good omen, I think. Then, just before show time, a soft spoken Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus asks if there’s room for him on the bench along the back wall- we’re quite literally sitting on stage, just behind his own frequent collaborator Kurt Rosenwinkel, who would join Ethan’s trio two night’s later at Ethical Culture. Need I say it? Another good omen.

I don’t normally go in for talk about “the best” at anything- tastes vary, situations vary, chemistry varies, my mood varies- but Brian Blade is the best drummer on the planet, totally innovative, dynamic, shocking, absolutely thrilling to watch. If you don’t know him, you’re robbing yourself- check out either of the two live albums from the Wayne Shorter Quartet, any of the many European soundboards by the band that circulate, and certainly look him up on Youtube to see him in action. And of course, check out the new Fellowship disc, a gorgeous document; a fluid, dynamically balanced journey through fantastic compositions that is being heralded as a turning point in contemporary jazz.

So expectations were high on this final night of a week long run at the venerable venue, but not high enough. The set began with Blade’s beauteous drums intro, cotton balled sticks playing from delicate to popping to polyrhythms and bursts. He was so completely impassioned as to mesmerize the audience and make people jump when the band joined in. Tenor player Melvin Butler’s first solo found pianist and principle writer John Cowherd and Walden sliding up around the side, Blade too, tearing and flailing and bashing, making a thousand goofy faces- how can you make sense of it all when you’re right in the crucible?

Now Blade was playing with his bare hands, drawing down to quietude and a beautiful guitar solo- Rosenwinkel’s tone is breathtaking. The lead built to lightning fast cascades and that drummer was there- it was like they were surfing off each other, each bounding higher off the other’s last split second peak. Blade destroyed his kit riding into the coda- and that was just the beginning.

A short, pretty “Stoner Hill” preceded that band’s new opus “Season of Changes.” The long piano intro turned moody, pensive, and after a shining chorus, Blade raged the band into the core. It was phenomenal collective playing, and then a stunning, freewheeling guitar solo with Blade backing, his face tight and his limbs lashing out. A smooth tenor and piano passage followed, Chris Thomas’ bass rounding in and the drumming now a delicate combination of cotton balls and hands. The band swung back up to the chorus and across to an alto solo, this with a super funky rhythm- part of Blade’s mystique is just how much variety and texture he can cram into a few bars, and just how he does it. The solo screamed higher to a series of bleats with cataclysm behind- how do you play with that under you?- and Blade just wouldn’t stop.

This is dangerous music in an age when we’re so commodified and prepackaged that sharp edges are almost impossible to find. After more than half a lifetime of nights in arenas and sweaty little clubs, here is a life changing performance to witness. There’s a kid across the way sitting with his buddy, his jaw literally hanging wide open.

A gorgeous mini-organ and bass clarinet duet began “Perceptual,” the title track off the band’s last album. Sensitive and warm, at some point the keys clacking on the sax were louder than the pulsing sounds coming from the bell. Deep, thumping bass and toms rolled in now, along with sly, understated guitar. Blade was utterly responsive, completely in the moment with the guitar, now with the alto, like he was trying to break through whatever barrier separated the sounds. All this seems like fanboy gushing, but no, I’m not overstating the case. If anything I’m dancing about architecture here, not doing it justice at all. Then there came arcs of saxophone over endless waterfalls of rhythm crashes, and watching it all, it was all too easy to forget to breathe.

Another guitar solo served as the intro to the closer, warm, groovin’ bass coming in and leading to an excellent piano trio passage that earned a big, post-orgasmic cheer, with slick drum fills trailing behind. Butler then led into the final peak, the band furiously surging up around him, and then dropping away, leaving Blade and Thomas gently jamming out the end, like landing a cloud.

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