Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band Leaves Michael Bourne Mouth Agape in Montreal

Jul 9, 2018

Monument-National is about a block from Place des Arts on Boulevard Saint-Laurent. When I first came to Montreal, the corner of the block was virtually red-lighted. Sexy lingerie shops. Sexy porn shops. And actual sex for sale.

In recent years, new business buildings have been erected, and more construction is now underway. Only a handful of the adult amusements flicker lights. What was once a strip joint is now the festival's Club Soda, a bistro for mostly pop artists. Across the street, a colorful (and sleazy) counterpoint to all of the urban renewal, standing loudly (and proudly) is the strip club Cleopatra. And just for the record, no.

I enjoyed two great shows this year at Monument-National. Early on, Monty Alexander played a bubbly set. (Or was it breezy? I can't decide the proper adjective for the joyful swinging of Monty's trio.) They played Monty's happy Jamaican grooves, highlighted by a pretty ballad called "The River" and the encore of a song Monty composed that Montreal's jazz patriarch, Oscar Peterson, recorded.

I was staggered by another show at the Monument-National. I'd never heard a jazz group play with so much — I'm again lost looking for le mot juste. The Brian Blade Fellowship Band plays jazz like no other jazz group I've heard. "Innovative" is too bland a word and not enough. "Awestruck" is hyperbolic, but I was actually mouth-agape at some moments.

They've been together almost 20 years, but (absurdly) I'd never heard the band live until this year's FIJM.

I'd heard recently one of the most beautiful of the WBGO Yamaha salon shows: saxophonist Myron Walden played music he'd composed and arranged for himself and a string quintet, with Jon Cowherd at the piano. Cowherd and Walden both play in Blade's Fellowship Band, alongside bassist Chris Thomas and saxophonist Melvin Butler. Each of them was spotlighted, but most extraordinary for me was the interplay, certainly in all the ways they've composed and arranged the music, but even moreso in the balancing (or, really, the juggling) of the dynamics in the music. They'd play together lyrically, but again and again musical currents (or undercurrents) were happening. Tempos quickened, sometimes to a fever pitch.

Brian Blade at the drums played so much more than time. He was often the very river that the music flowed through. He'd be at times the calm of a pool, and then he'd splash across the cymbals, rush around the drums as if around the rocks. And the intensity of the band was flabbergasting, even like a rock band.

Melvin Butler played a long soprano sax solo that, together with the band, became so frenzied that the audience hooted and screamed as if for the lightning of a rock guitarist. Jon Cowherd, meanwhile, often escaped the wildest musical thunder with surprisingly quiet melodic moments. I heard several young cats at the jazzfest showing off thousands of breakneck notes, but Cowherd, with only a handful of simpler (and often pretty) notes, pulled everyone so much deeper into the musical waters.

The Brian Blade Fellowship Band is one of the most original, most compelling — I could just Roget through a parade of synonyms for how good these cats play!