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Landmarks

Landmarks

Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band - 2014

On this, International Jazz Day (4-30-14), it seems only fitting to sit down, put the headphones on and reflect on the just released, Landmarks - the new album by Jazz legend Brian Blade and his Fellowship Band. Problem being that on this, thee day to celebrate all that is Jazz, this is probably one of the least Jazz'y', Jazz albums to be released in some time. You would have to go back to Brad Mehldau's epic 2010 release, Highway Rider, to find another Jazz album that so significantly puts the emphasis on mood and atmosphere above and beyond all else, including showing off exactly how genius and comprehensive a Jazz musician each player on the album is. The last album to do so before Rider? Well, the last Fellowship Band album - 2008's Season of Changes. The way that drummer Blade and his cohorts story-tell their way through an album, with every tune creating a descriptive and emotional awareness of a specific surrounding they are bringing to auditory life, is slowly becoming an entire sub-genre of Jazz that they are making their own. Certainly, Landmarks, like its predecessors, is not a conceptual album or a one-story musical show throughout, but the sound and the point of the album is so embedded in each individual song that what we end up taking is a journey - their journey, be it in a straight form or other. Not wishing to give the wrong impression by suggesting that the Jazz'y' is missing from the Jazz here, Landmarks is highlighted by solos throughout and the players at these times certainly showcase their talents. However, you're not going to find Blade as the assertive authority figure as you do in his work with the Wayne Shorter Quartet. Nor will Myron Walden (alto sax, bass clarinet) or Melvin Butler (soprano and tenor saxophone) expose Branford Marsalis-esque re-imaginings of all things saxophone. That sort of overwhelming from anyone in the band wouldn't fit into what they are trying to create in the music as a whole. That being said, as to be expected, the musicianship is supreme but it is more so in how tasteful it is rather than being defined by extraordinary set pieces of skills. There are plenty of Jazz sensibilities to this album but it's the uncommon extension of varying melodies in bunches throughout the songs and the unique formula, different on each tune, that makes each track standout from the usual Jazz fare. Missing is the straight, head-solos-out, take on Jazz. There's something more afoot here - something more important in the music than in the players. As the title suggests, Landmarks deals in musical markers. However, although some tracks are obvious in their suggestion of geographical points (State Lines, Ark.La.Tex., Down River), others fix themselves to people in Blade's life (his mother is the one that Friends Call Her Dot, and his nieces are the subject matter for Farewell Bluebird and Bonnie Be Good). It should be noted that the drummer isn't the only credited writer on the album as his old college roommate, pianist John Cowherd, also takes to task some delicious compositional feats. Cowherd's contribution to the album is hefty as his style of improv; his choice of chord voicings; his knowing when to vamp in simplicity and when to let go and support the band in a more open position; all of what he does really sets the stage for what happens melodically and harmonically in Walden and Butler's playing. Alongside the bass playing of Chris Thomas (who is expertly on show during the opening of the second track, Landmarks), a unique partnership is formed almost as much in contrast as in compatibility. Clearly the rest of the band trusts implicitly, Cowherd in his 'everything' role and it is left to him alone to open the album through a short but poignant prologue, Down River. His anticipatory and question-like playing on the mellotron reveals the beauty yet in waiting while at the same time foreshadowing the overall tone that the band is set upon. All this accomplished in :57 and one instrument. Down River is one of four smaller compositions found on Landmarks which is a little surprising given the total of ten tracks on offer. However, the length of these songs certainly does not diminish their ability to be as emotive and expansive as the lengthier tracks on the album. In point of fact, Shenandoah, in its sounding like an old Celtic ballad, is one of the most honest and openly beautiful moments on Landmarks. (I have to admit to being a huge sucker for the bass clarinet.) The title song is an exquisite example of how these musicians swim through their music, stroking the tracks existence. They do so in tandem via small melodic interludes and as soloists, they role play the role of pacifiers of the music as it works on releasing itself from the current or near undertow that it is working through. The song brings a wanted weight of permanence that a landmark takes to bare so to be able to ground itself at a fixed point in time, hence becoming eternal in return for its sacrifice. It is this weight that we feel in Ark.La.Tex (states that all border on each other) as it begins as a marching, hopeless dirge. As within the rest of the album, the melodies that make up this composition are defined by the expression of the players and less about notes in plenty or harmony beyond what works within the chord structures. Certainly there are three obvious sections to this tale but how they correlate with the three states is something that Mr. Blade himself would have to define in words. He mentions that the states are all in relation to a quasi-cross section near where he grew up in Shreveport, LA (which is also where most of the album was recorded). I'm not sure what that says about his relationship with that area as Ark.La.Tex. certainly does not come across as an uplifting musical experience even though he talks ever so fondly of his upbringing in the area. Walden, who features prominently as the midpoint soloist adds to the relational intrigue as he cuts a compassionate yet complex figure. Both Walden and Butler prove, throughout that they can attune themselves to which role each song asks them to play. Now, it's not often these days that two saxophones get paired together as the only featured horns in a band, but Walden and Butler play in such dedication to the close auditory confines that their instruments place them in that it becomes impossible to imagine any reworking or arrangements that paired one or the other with not only a different instrument but even with a different player. (and breathe) Their tones and their delivery a match made in heaven. Then, when given the space to express themselves as soloists, they soar all alone. In particular, Walden's solo on He Died Fighting, is a triumphant battle against the music making it a highlight of the album. The true beauty of Landmarks, and what the band has excelled at always, is giving each song a persona. They speak to us as well as if they were our friends or strangers at first meet. Friends Call Her Dot is somewhat the pleading we would only hear in comfort from those we truly love. The introspective, Farewell Bluebird gives us the impression of reading someone's diary where within, they have let all of themselves out, unabashedly. Alas the end of the album betrays its true beauty. The band closes with Embers which leaves us with this unfortunate feeling of being taken through a deep and dedicated search of someone's personal landmarks and then at the very end of it all, being told to cheer up, everything is ok. It seems really out of place and unfortunately a little cheesy in relation to the rest of this phenomenal album. I have to admit that there is one aspect of Landmarks that disappoints if only, barely. Blade's drum kit seems to have been deliberately produced to reflect the mood of the album as though quieting them in the mix and softening them up would best correspond to the nature of the songs. Unfortunately it comes across as a rather obvious and manipulated tool, especially when you have a drummer, a great, a giant, a legend who easily and does on his own, play to the tone and ambience of the music. It's a very picky point and hardly takes away from the class and quality of the recording overall nor does it blight Blade's perfect and ever so subtle and at times subdued, drum performance. Although Landmarks can be at times dragged down by its overall similarity in the common mood of each song, the album is a beautifully crafted and well looked after piece of art that shows us again that Brian Blade and his Fellowship Band are always and ever in complete control of their playing and what they wish to convey through their songs.

Posted by Andrew Scott

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Comments

Good stuff. I definitely hear Highway Rider in there.

Posted over 4 years ago by TambegifTambe

Posted: 05/02/2014

Review by:

Moi

Andrew Scott


Andrew Scott ranks this as the
#4 favorite album of 2014

Rating: