Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band marks its 20th anniversary in 2017 with the release of their sublime fifth album, Body and Shadow, a succinct nine-track meditation on lightness/darkness that arrives like a balm for the soul, ebbing and flowing with grace, subtlety and no shortness of beauty.
Formed in 1997, the band released their eponymous Blue Note debut in 1998, but the bond among the musicians goes back even further. Brian Blade, the band’s namesake and drummer, first met pianist Jon Cowherd in 1988 while attending Loyola University in New Orleans, and they met bassist Chris Thomas in the Crescent City a year later. With Myron Walden (alto saxophone and bass clarinet) and Melvin Butler (tenor saxophone), the Fellowship Band’s sturdy unified bond (“we think of the band as a collective instrument,” Cowherd says) has evolved with every album, and Body and Shadow, which also features Denver-based guitarist Dave Devine, is an extension of that evolution.
Blade and Cowherd wrote, arranged and produced the songs for Body and Shadow, which was recorded at the historic Columbus Theatre in Providence, Rhode Island. The experience reminded Blade of recording the band’s debut with producer Daniel Lanois at the Teatro, a former movie theater in Oxnard, California.
“It is always great to be in the moment and in process with the band,” says Blade. “We come in with all our grand plans and then there’s this yielding to, ‘Okay, here’s what’s actually being captured.’ Maybe not what I thought but another feeling, another energy, which is unpredictable. There’s joy in the whole mystery of what we are hoping to create. You step into the process to see what you’re made of, individually and together. Since we’ve shared so much time together, that trust and the sort of inherent knowing of what’s needed for each other kicks in pretty quick.”
Blade can be a nuanced colorist or a mighty force at the drums and the songs composed for Body and Shadow could be seen as snapshots of a band balancing that light and darkness that exists in all of us. Blade says the album’s luminous and airy opener, “Within Everything,” is about “believing that you’re created to be one of a kind and that you do have a purpose in your life and there is a reason that you are here right now. I believe that light should not be extinguished in anyone. That confidence and that faith, everyone should know this for themselves. That song sort of speaks to that spirit of what I feel is the divine plan. I guess we all have doubt about so much in life but hopefully we can renew our confidence daily.”
Blade, who usually composes on guitar, was at the piano when he penned “Body and Shadow” (Morning, Noon and Night), which he sees as three different perspectives of the same thought. “I got into the meditation of it,” Blade says of the three poetic pieces. “I hope it keeps people leaning in to hear their own story within the song.”
“Traveling Mercies” was born out of an experiment for Cowherd to write away from the piano while touring through Poland with harmonica player Gregoire Maret. While on the tour bus, Cowherd opened Finale notation software on his laptop and began putting notes on a staff, trying to hear the way Butler and Walden might play a melody as well as thinking of the other members of the group. “That was the first tune and maybe the only tune I’ve ever written that way,” he says, “where I just wrote completely away from an instrument. It was on a bus so it kind of has a traveling mood.”
Cowherd’s solo harmonium rendering of “Have Thine Own Way, Lord” leads into a gospel steeped full band version of the Christian hymn. Referring to the lyrics, ‘Thou art the potter, I am the clay,’ Blade says “the song speaks to a certain kind of submission that says, ‘Mold me and shape me to Thy will, not my will.’ To be waiting ‘yielded and still’ is the challenge of what the music requires.”
In keeping with the theme of Body and Shadow, Cowherd’s “Duality” is a study in extremes, a journey within a piece of music from light to dark, as is the case with many of his compositions. The first half features buoyant soloing from Cowherd while Walden comes in for a soaring alto solo that progressively builds in intensity.
The composition “Broken Leg Days” ends the album with Butler delivering a beautifully strong and sturdy tenor solo over the odd metered sections. Cowherd says that he feels like there was some limping happening in the song that he wrote about a pivotal time in his life. He’d left New York City in 1995 after receiving a Master’s Degree from Manhattan School of Music to perform on the American Queen, a steamboat that travels up and down the Mississippi River. He ended up breaking his leg and spent the next five months recuperating at his parents’ house in Kentucky, realizing he needed to move back to New York and eventually joining the Fellowship Band.
“I think we have a lot of hope for the world and ourselves and the desire to create something which will move or touch people,” Cowherd says. “There’s a spiritual background to the band. We come from a foundation of playing music that is inspirational and I think we all want it to be intellectually interesting, too.”