There isn’t anyone quite like Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band working in jazz these days. Unlike a lot of jazz bands, solos seem secondary to what they do. And no other band seems so willing to take their time. To let the intensity arise naturally from the development of a tune and performance.
At Scullers Wednesday night (the first of two sold-out sets), they began with a quiet, hymn-like theme played by pianist Jon Cowherd. Then alto sax Myron Walden and tenor Melvin Butler came in together with the second line. Blade began to shuffle on his drums, joined by bassist Christopher Thomas. Blade built to a big double-THWACK on his drums and someone yelled “All right!” The tune finished quietly, no solos.
The second tune, “Seasons of Changes” (the title of their 2008 Verve CD) also began at ballad tempo, and was longer – about 20 minutes. But it proceeded with the same patient deliberation – theme from bass clarinet and tenor, short drum interlude, then a shift up in tempo and the upward sweep of alto and tenor into a theme that had as much to do with country-folk as jazz. There was a good piano solo built with passages of block chords, then an interlude between Butler and Cowherd, Butler repeating the theme and then slowly building an improvisation. Butler’s solo became agitated, and Blade picked up on his rhythmic figures, repeating them. Then Walden’s alto joined. When the climax came, it wasn’t necessarily about what Butler was doing in his solo, but what the band were doing together.
Tension built again through quietly played matching four-to-the-bar beats on the hi-hat, bowed bass, and chording piano under Walden’s escalating alto solo, which finally reached a Coltrane-like upward cry. And then it all came back down to just drum mallets, quiet cymbal hits, and a repetition of the opening theme with bass clarinet and tenor.
There were other felicities. Cowherd’s long pump-organ introduction to the folk standard “Shenandoah” while Thomas tapped quietly on the strings below his bridge (like an African kora). Or the call-and-response between bass clarinet and the unison of piano and pizzicato bass. Or Cowherd’s piano solo with bass and drums, which might have been the only real “jazz” solo of the night, with its intimations of walking-bass swing. Or the last two tunes, both blues. They were a Blade original and the gospel tune “Let Your Light Shine on Me” (in this case, Blade said afterwards, inspired by the Blind Willie Johnson version), where Butler took an extended tenor solo that had everything you’d want from the blues – a combination of relaxed, breath-like phrases and soulful expression. The audience screamed.
This is a band that enjoys their work. Even as Cowherd soloed, Walden and Butler stood together and conferred, then joined in. Fellowship indeed.