Known for his ability to propel and shape improvisational flow through expressive permutations of groove, tonality, texture, and dynamics, drummer Brian Blade carries a uniquely high hardcore jazz profile as the chameleonic sideman for such diverse jazz heroes as Wayne Shorter, Joshua Redman, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Kenny Garrett, and Bill Frisell. But Blade himself has a distinctive sonic vision, showcased over the last decade on three recordings by Fellowship Band, most recently 2008′s Season of Changes. That strains from gospel, blues, R&B, and country are never far from the surface is no accident — the son of a Baptist minister, Blade?s hometown is Shreveport, Louisiana, and he apprenticed in New Orleans. There he connected with guru producer-guitarist Daniel Lanois, who would later employ Blade on various projects with icons Emmy Lou Harris, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Dylan. This back-story contextualizes Blade’s latest, Mama Rosa, a performative volte face on which he plays barely a beat on drums but performs ten songs that he wrote over the past decade-plus and home-recorded to four-track while touring. Accompanying himself on guitar, with counterstating solos from Lanois, vocal harmony support from Kelly Jones, and guest turns from various Fellowship colleagues, Blade addresses lyrics that comprise a quasi-autobiography, touching on faith, family, love, loss, and remembrance. He sings them without affect, conveying the message with phrasing and nuanced articulation, and complementing his voice — clear, keening, never bathetic — with subtle doubling techniques in the arrangements. Blade isn’t likely to reach the popular heights that Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole attained as vocalists, and his songs don’t contain the multilayered resonance that Dylan and Mitchell can evoke. But Mama Rosa reveals him to be a first-class singer-songwriter, one of the rare jazz musicians whose ability to access the open emotional canvas that is essential to good popular music matches his virtuosic instrumental skills.
About the Author
Ted Panken writes extensively about jazz for various publications, including DownBeat and Jazziz, as well as the website www.jazz.com. He's presented it on WKCR-FM in New York City since 1985. He won the 2007 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his article "Smalls Universe," published by DownBeat.