Wayne Shorter is the most self-effacing of bandleaders; he often plays with such reticence that you’d never guess he was the star unless you glanced at an album’s credits or noticed his bandmates’ reactions to his cues during a gig. Brian Blade, Shorter’s drummer for the past 13 years, is similarly understated. On Landmarks, the new album credited to Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band, you don’t even hear his drums until more than two minutes into the second track, and they don’t take the foreground until the beginning of the sixth track.
And yet, like his employer/mentor, Blade controls nearly every tune with not-always-obvious elements: fat-bottomed tone, strong melodic themes and an acceleration and deceleration of pace that always pushes and pulls against expectations. This is not an album of young musicians trying to prove how many notes and changes they can play within eight bars; this is a session devoted to milking all the emotion lurking in the hymn-like melodies and wistful tempos. It’s a testament to Blade’s leadership that his fellow musicians rein in their considerable technical facility to bring all that feeling to the fore.
The album was recorded in his brother Brady’s studio in the place where they both grew up, Shreveport. That north Louisiana town is close to Texas and Arkansas, which explains the title of the key, 11-minute track, “Ark. La. Tex.,” and of guitarist Marvin Sewell’s unaccompanied variation on the tune “State Lines.” The small-town culture of that tri-state area is one where Saturday morning dance music, Sunday morning church music and Monday morning go-to-work music tend to blend together-and those elements of blues, gospel and hillbilly songs are fused by Blade’s skillful sextet into something resembling a cinematic score.
Jon Cowherd’s unaccompanied minor-key piano intro gives “Ark. La. Tex.” its patient tempo and mournful cast, both of which are reinforced by Blade’s echoing tom accents. Alto saxophonist Myron Walden and tenor saxophonist Melvin Butler give Blade’s theme a more hopeful outlook by emphasizing its pleasurable harmony. Walden’s restlessly darting solo and Sewell’s effects-twisted coda counterweight the comforting hymnal sections and thus allow the composition to capture a common ambivalence about the South-an affection for its natural beauty and unguarded people balanced by frustration with its ongoing injustices.
The short rendition of the old folksong “Shenandoah” is dominated by Cowherd’s pump organ, but that melody, perhaps the best example of yearning in North American music, sets the standard high for Blade’s own compositions. He creates not one but two captivating tunes for each of his three family portraits: “Bonnie Be Good” for his niece, “Friends Call Her Dot” for his schoolteacher mother and “He Died Fighting” for his civil-rights-activist grandfather. The lattermost piece is especially impressive for the way the stirring, easy-to-hum theme is pitted against a marching-into-battle rhythm, which falters, revives, stumbles and rebounds with renewed vigor.
The album’s longest song is the 13-minute “Farewell Bluebird,” an elegy for New Orleans’ Bluebird Café, which closed in 2009. Like a New Orleans funeral, the tune opens with a slow dirge, full of sorrow for the South’s disappearing oases of good food and personality. A piano fantasia delights in memories of what is now gone; a comforting bridge assuages the loss. At the six-minute mark, the band makes a sudden shift into a funky R&B riff and then into Sewell’s dirty-blues guitar solo, as if to remind themselves how much life is left in the city.
As in “Ark. La. Tex.,” Blade is able to provide not only the momentum of a marching band but also the strange tangents of secular syncopation and Dionysian distraction that are part of Southern life. His selfless ability to blend those two currents into one river of rhythm allows his band to celebrate and criticize the South in equal measure.