For the 2014 Portland Jazz Festival’s second concert, drummer Brian Blade reassembled his band called the Brian Blade Fellowship. Some of the music was from the past of the group that he founded in 1997. Other pieces previewed their next album, Landmark, to be released in April. Blade, pianist John Cowherd, bassist Chris Thomas and saxophonists Myron Walden and Melvin Butler have played their ruminative, stately music together for so long that it often seems to unfold independent of their effort. The apparent ease comes from a remarkable degree of empathy and considerable compositional work that fashions performances with the appearance of spontaneity. Earlier in the day in one of the jazz conversations that illuminate the festival’s performances, Blade likened his method of composing to the progress of a river that must be monitored. “If the river is rising,” he said, “I feel that I should be ready.”
The evening moved from tune to tune without announcements. Near the end, Blade identified only the title tune of Landmark. Each piece incorporated Butler on tenor or soprano saxophone and Walden on alto sax or bass clarinet. They played together in textured unison or harmony, then one moved into the wings as the other soloed. Their statements tended to begin in contemplation, then accumulate passion. It was not unusual for one or the other to incorporate a riff that might have come out of a 1940s jump band. All the while, Blade booted, urged, cajoled and guided the soloists from behind his drums. The polyrhythmic variety he has personalized since his early studies with the master New Orleans drummer Johnny Vidacovich make him one of the music’s most expressive drummers. That has been evident not only in his own band, but in Wayne Shorter’s quartet. He and Cowherd have been playing together since they were music majors at Loyola University. They long ago melded into an understanding based in shared rhythmic values and belief in the importance of compositional logic. In one piece (I wish that I could tell you its name) they played what amounted to a mutual solo, Blade supporting and contrasting Cowherd’s full harmonies and melodic inventions with the counterpoint of mallets struck, and sometimes rubbed, on the drum heads.
Last night, even at its most ethereal, the Blade band’s music had a blues sensibility that seemed to reach out and grab the predominantly white audience whose average age was considerably beyond middle. It was a night for standing ovations. After theirs, as an encore Blade and company played one chorus of the traditional melody “Shenandoah,” Walden’s belly-deep bass clarinet undergirding the ensemble.
(Photo of Blade from the Portland performance by Mark Sheldon ©)