Brian Blade’s chatter of rhythm, loose pulse and beefed-up rimshots reference a tradition of US drumming excellence that stretches back through several generations of modernist masters. Cymbals glide, press rolls snap shut and the crack of his snare, thunderously struck, punctuates an otherwise leisurely rhythmic stroll. And like all past drumming greats, Blade cushions and cajoles in equal measure.
This gig presented Blade’s long-running Fellowship, a personal project he runs alongside high-profile work as a sideman. Blade is an integral part of Wayne Shorter’s touring quartet, and his own quintet shares that band’s sense of space and dynamic extremes, internal cohesion and linear development. In this jazz club setting, you could relish every acoustic detail.
But here the similarities end. Blade replaces Shorter’s abstract melodic daubs with lyrical themes that draw on the resonance of a twin-sax front line. In both sets, complexity and technical excellence flowed from the simple structures of contemporary popular song, albeit independent and somewhat left-field. Scene-setting intros were strong in mood – Myron Walden’s bass clarinet, woody, contemplative and with an upward lift; Chris Thomas’s delicate double bass trill, high-register, and as quiet as a pen brushing paper. Long expositions morphed from ballad to climax, changed rhythm and stretched out; short, through-composed snippets captured a strong sense of place.
Brian Blade has also worked with Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, and has brought elements of Americana into his mix. A sonorous folk song came mid-second set, and the encore, delivered after some insistence, was a tenor-sax-led hymn – Melvin Butler, old-school and breathy. And pianist and long-term collaborator Jon Cowherd adds myriad stark voicings, supple textures and one-finger lines.
The evening’s opener started at an amble, developed at a canter, and ended with the anguish of Walden’s biting, blues-drenched alto sax – “Farewell Bluebird” was written in memory of a lost New Orleans Café. Tune followed tune with only a brief pause for breath, and detail piled on detail with a mighty pulse and an oblique narrative drive. At the core were Cowherd’s subtle piano textures and sensitive touch; and Blade, conducting from within and gleefully second-guessing bassist Thomas’s off-kilter accents.
Brian Blade plays with Jon Cowherd’s quartet at the Pizza Express Jazz Club, London, August 9-11