On every album that drummer Brian Blade has made with his group the Fellowship Band, from the act's 1998 self-titled debut to its forthcoming release Landmarks, there's a cohesive group sound that's immediately recognizable.
"I have to attribute that evolving oneness to everyone in the band," Blade says. "I'm thankful that I have these people in my life, and we were able to, from the first time we got together, feel this connection. And over the years, hopefully, that sound we make together is becoming more and more woven into this one fabric.
"Obviously there's individualism in each unique personality, but then everyone submits themselves wholeheartedly to the big idea," he goes on. "So I think that's a big part of hopefully what is evolving, and helping that sound to evolve. And everyone's willingness to play that part and to commit and to believe it, even if it requires seemingly very little in a moment. Even that, even silence contributes to what might be needed. I'm just thankful for everyone in the band for that."
Before Blade started playing with jazz and folk legends like Wayne Shorter (he's been a part of Shorter's quartet for thirteen years), Herbie Hancock, Kenny Garrett, Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris and Bob Dylan, he met keyboardist Jon Cowherd while the two were studying at Loyola University in New Orleans in 1988, and that's when the roots of the Fellowship Band began to form. The duo met bassist Chris Thomas when he moved to New Orleans about a year later, and Blade met saxophonists Melvin Butler and Myron Walden in the mid-'90s. The group came into focus when Blade narrowed down who he was writing for. Once he took stock of the individual voices in the group, Blade says, he wrote songs with those bandmembers in mind.
"I'm always envisioning the guys in the band when I write, because their voices carry all this melody and harmony and rhythm, and they activate it with their spirits and their gifts," he explains. "It's really somewhat dormant on paper. I mean, it lives in me. I'm so thankful for the gift of having it come to me, but it's not complete until they breathe their lives into it. Then it becomes, like, 'Okay, this belongs to us,' and then we let it go, so hopefully, it belongs to everyone at that point."
Over the fifteen years or so that the Fellowship Band has been a unit, a trust between the bandmembers has developed, not only on the bandstand, but off stage, as well. "All the years on the road and playing together and spending time together in the van and then to the hotel, in a cafe, it all contributes, I think, to that knowing and that trust," he says. "That's a really big part of it for me, and I think for the identity of the Fellowship Band. I hope we make something that all that joy and cumulative hours spent together, hopefully, that transmits in sound."
That's more than apparent on the act's forthcoming album, Landmarks, which is slated for release on April 29 on the Blue Note imprint, in conjunction with Mid-City Records, the Shreveport, Louisiana-based label headed up by Blade's brother Brady Blade Jr., who also recently launched Blade Studios, where seven of the ten cuts on Landmarks were recorded.
"It's great to be in a comfortable place, a place where you feel comfort and you feel welcome and creative," Blade notes. "Blade Studios is really so state of the art. I was almost a little afraid about it. I was like, 'Wow, this is so nice!' But, you know, the energy you put in is hopefully what you're trying to capture on tape. It's still a mystery how all of that congeals, but with the right people in the room and that trust in the right people in the room, then hopefully you get those results to hear back. And I feel like we're able to do that at Blade Studios. It definitely affects the flow."
Flow is something that seems to come naturally for Blade, who was born and raised in Shreveport with a supportive family. (He recently moved back there.) He credits his father, Brady Blade Sr., who's been a pastor for the last 53 years, and his mother for instilling him with a love of music. Blade grew up hearing gospel in church, and that bedrock of experience formed his way of hearing things now. Also, Brian and Brady Jr., who also plays drums, and their father have a group called Hallelujah Train, which Blade says is "really a tribute to [Brady Sr.] and to the gospel that he's been preaching and singing his whole life."
Blade says he followed in the footsteps of his brother, who started playing drums in church around the time he was twelve or thirteen years old, and Brian did the same thing after Brady Jr. moved to New Orleans to go to college. "It was a great way to learn, in that praised environment; people just exhort you, and try and help you along without it being, I don't know, some expectation of.... It's not performing," Blade muses. "It's just a contribution, and sort of your part. So that was so encouraging. I take that with me into every situation that I go into now. Obviously the Fellowship Band was born from that, if I can pinpoint a beginning point. It all springs from that."
From the beginning up to Landmarks, Blade says, all of the group's albums have had journey-like aspects to them. It's "like a trip you're taking through songs and landscapes and experiences and memories all sort of coalescing along this ten-song stretch of land," he says. "I guess there is a thread in the title composition, which was written by Jon Cowherd. And Jon — ever since we met in 1988 in New Orleans at Loyola, he's just been an inspiration and such a great friend. The reason I started writing myself was because of Jon."
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For Landmarks, "the title felt like, 'Okay, this is where we are now, marked by this," Blade points out. "All the themes on the record touch on that sort of, I guess, a place, a situation. 'Ark.La.Tex.' is sort of the tri-state region in northwest Louisiana where Shreveport is. I wanted to write about that, because obviously, it's just my roots, where I'm from."
Elsewhere on the disc, Blade pays tribute to his mother, Dorothy, on "Friends Call Her Dot"; two of his nieces, on "Bonnie Be Good"; and, on "Farewell Bluebird," a cafe that he used to frequent. While Blade says he can't recall where some songs for Landmarks were written ("It could be in a hotel room in Budapest"), he knows that some of them were written in Portland, Oregon, where he lived with his wife before they moved back to Shreveport.
"A lot of the songs that I wrote for this record were born there," he recalls, "particularly 'Embers,' I know for sure, because I remember the night when I overlooked the city from where we were living, and in the darkness [there was] this shimmering of light — it looked like coals had been raked over. I thought, 'Wow, this is feeding me something.'"
While Blade composes his songs on guitar (and he credits producer and songwriter Daniel Lanois as the main reason he started playing guitar), Cowherd writes on the piano. "I think it's mostly because of our bond, our friendship," Blade concludes. "With Jon composing for the band in his corner of the world and me in my mind, when they come together, they seem to coexist and hopefully create a listening experience that is connected."