One of the wonderful new finds in so many months has been Brian Blade’s newest album, Season of Changes. Admittedly this is the first of Brian’s albums that I’ve had a chance to get my hands on, but the music he and The Fellowship Band produce is exactly what I would expect from him: music that has a candidly contemporary tempo, delving into deep tonal moods and enriched by phrasing that characterizes the definition of today’s jazz.
Brian has been playing with all the major voices that have shaped the current movement in popular contemporary jazz. I first noticed Brian Blade when he drummed for Joshua Redman in most of Joshua’s recordings, including the influential Momentum and Freedom in the Groove albums starting in the mid nineties. I then listened intently as he worked with such rising stars as Kurt Rosenwinkel and jazz statesmen such as Kenny Garrett and Wayne Shorter. It was almost expectant relief when I finally found an album with Brian’s own name on it. (Note: Brian Blade has 3 other previous albums, Brian Blade Fellowship <1998>, Perceptual <2000>, Friendly Travelers <2007>)
True to his heritage and experience, the music found in Season of Changes has a little bit of everyone he’s played with and admired. The song Return of the Prodigal Son brings John Coltrane into the twenty-first century, whimsically playing with the fantasy of what John Coltrane would sound like if he had continued to live and perform into the present day. Omni is another such songs that is set squarely from the Trane-era avant-garde/free jazz heritage, however I feel it pays much homage to Kenny Garrett’s work, another contemporary jazz giant. Most Precious One (Prodigy), Season of Changes, Stoner Hill and Rubylou’s Lullaby stride straight into the best of the more progressive contemporary jazz coming out from today’s young pioneers. You can hear Brian’s direction in these songs more clearly as he presents to the listener a clear, contemporary tempo and invites the rest of The Fellowship Band to join in the discussion. It is in these songs that you hear remnants of Brad Mehldau from Jon Cowherd on piano, and where Kurt Rosenwinkel takes the lead on electric guitar, you get a very clear sense that they’ve gone through these motions before, and they know exactly where they want the sound to go.
Support-Instrument Band Leadership and “Foreground Ambient” Music
The one word that continually enters my mind as I listen to Brian Blade’s music is “Ambient”, but not the ambience we associate with ‘ambient jazz’ or ‘elevator music’. I feel Brian’s music demands the ambience to take the foreground, requiring the listener to be submerged in the music, versus classic ambience that can be left in the background as an afterthought. This music is made for sitting in your living room with a 5-speaker surround-sound stereo system and turning it up just a little too loud, so you can be enveloped in the layers of sound.
One reason why I believe Brian can make this type of music is because of the structure of The Fellowship Band. Unlike other groups where the band leader is often the lead instrument, Brian Blade as the drummer leads from behind and sets a language that is then built upon layer-upon-layer by the other musicians. So when the direction shifts, you hear it as an under-swelling of change in the feel and phraseology of music. This is in high contrast from lead-instrument-band-leader structures, where the shifts in musical direction are nakedly audible. With Brian leading from behind and deep underneath, the movement of the music feels more subtle and in concert, hence my feeling of foreground-ambience. Another analogy I have for the difference between lead-instrument and support-instrument leadership is much like front-wheel versus rear-wheel drive. Front wheel drive has a faster response rate, acceleration rate and is more agile in its moves, but rear-wheel drive has a smoother acceleration and transition, making for a more pleasant ride.
This foreground-ambience I feel is inherent with many support-instrument band-leadership structures. Brad Mehldau’s leadership on piano or Dave Holland’s leadership on bass are examples that come to mind.
Discussing music organizational structures just indulges the music & leadership junkies in me. Regardless how you listen to it, Brian Blade and The Fellowship Band has got their equation down right, and will enthrall any jazz listener. I for one look forward to Brian’s next album.