Leaving their mark on jazz

“Landmarks” is the fourth album from Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band, a jazz collective led by renowned drummer and composer Brian Blade. Blade is one of the most active drummers on the planet, playing with a host of artists and groups including Joni Mitchell, Joshua Redman and jazz giant Wayne Shorter. Despite his busy schedule, the Fellowship Band has been together for 16 years now, a rarity in a jazz scene currently dominated by virtuosic frontmen with rotating accompanists. Filling out the band are pianist and additional composer Jon Cowherd, saxophonists Myron Walden and Melvin Butler, and bassist Chris Thomas. Absent from this particular recording is longtime guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, whose place has been filled by Marvin Sewell on a few tracks and Jeff Parker on others.

The Fellowship Band is the model of what a longstanding jazz group can be. Because they’ve been playing together for so long under the same name, they have an instantly recognizable sound and aesthetic grown and cultivated throughout their many years. This recording, like their previous albums, is characterized by the sound of the band, not by the sound of individual players. While each member has their own particular voice, the group as a whole is elevated above the individual, which results in a cohesive, powerful sound. Borrowing from a wide range of genres and musical styles, the Fellowship Band has crafted a sort of folk aesthetic, while still maintaining the jazz tradition that each of its players represents.

“He Died Fighting,” penned by Blade, demonstrates the genre-blending and band aesthetic present throughout this record. Opening with 30 seconds of drums that would sound at home on any hip-hop record, the tune explodes into a harmonized saxophone melody. The melody is a plain one, as are most of Blade’s, favoring introspection and expression over flashy technique. This approach continues into the solos, where the improvisations are an extension of the melodic content already established, not just a platform to demonstrate ability. The Fellowship Band tends to shy away from the traditional jazz form of melody, solo, melody, opting for collective interplay around the melody of the tune.

While there are three longer set pieces on the album, the remaining seven tracks clock in under five minutes, another rarity in the jazz world these days. The compositions are focused and the statements are strong, devoid of lengthy improvisations. Even in the 12-minute “Ark.La.Tex.” the band is more concerned with long, composed melodic sections than it is on exerting the individuality of its players through solos.

My only complaint with this record comes in the form of a guitar solo on “Farewell Bluebird.” Kurt Rosenwinkel, who played on the Fellowship’s first three albums, was absent for this recording session and replaced by Marvin Sewell. Sewell sticks out like a sore thumb, an outsider in a group of musicians attuned to each other’s playing after 16 years. It’s not really Sewell’s fault – try to imagine the Beatles with a fifth member.

This is why the Fellowship Band is so unique: add, remove or replace any of its members and the sound noticeably suffers.

But this is just a small gripe with two minutes of an otherwise incredible record produced by a true rarity in the jazz world: a band.

4 1/2 stars out of 5.

DOWNLOAD NOW: “He Died Fighting”