Drummer Brian Blade, who has recorded with a diverse crowd that includes Joshua Redman, Bob Dylan, Kenny Garrett and Emmylou Harris, leads his band like no other man behind the trap kit. He doesn’t solo in the true sense of the word, he doesn’t limit the program to his compositions, he doesn’t make rhythm the focus of the evening — he doesn’t even sit where there’s lighting. Yet he supplies an overwhelming presence for a group that’s just crawling out of its embryonic state and still defining its character. A jazz act, for once, is being given a chance to grow up in public with the potential to be as important to the ’00s as Weather Report was to the 1970s.
The Fellowship — with an odd front line of two saxophones, guitar and pedal steel guitar — has a bounty of adventurous music, some from the hand of pianist Joe Cowherd, most from Blade, and they create a landscape of sound that asks members of the septet to drop in and out of pieces at varying intervals.
It limits some playing to mood-enhancing textures and it can induce some repetitiveness in the structure of songs, but there are also sounds that one just doesn’t hear in the jazz framework: Pedal steel player Dave Easley and guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel perform in tandem, for example, making a collective solo that shimmers and induces, at the front of pieces, a generally pastoral sensation.
The mellow moods that opened the five songs performed were generally shaken loose by the emphatic soloing of Myron Walden, who reaches for the deepest register of the alto sax and produces the sorts of runs associated with tenor man John Coltrane in his later years. On “Crooked Creek,” a standout track from their fine new Blue Note album, “Perceptual,” Walden was a fireball, following a driving bass-and-guitar funk line that came after a gradual build-up that echoed Pat Metheny’s serene work. As the piece unfolded, the musicians grew increasingly piercing and as far out as each went, there was always a point of return.
In many ways, this music updates the cerebral exercises of composers in the 1970s and ’80s who sought ways to run a 50-50 mix of written and improvised passages; by the time “Crooked Creek” closed, the music was so refreshing, though, that it would have been a real treat to have it wash over the audience again.
The leader in all of this, Blade, 27, is busy setting up his own curious passages. He’s a lively player — his facial expressions are in a constant state of flux, flashing his opinions about the sound of the music at every turn — and he approaches each number with wildly original thoughts. He supplies an intersection for the other players, colliding with them every few bars rather than gliding along behind him; it creates an impression like that of the late Who drummer Keith Moon, whose playing was out of the ordinary yet defined the music to the point where it can’t be thought of without his unique runs of percussion.
On record this is an impressive jazz band, live they appear bigger and bolder — at times they just jump out of their skin. And at Catalina they are creating music that would impress any open-minded listener, regardless of their fascination with jazz or rock ‘n’ roll.
It’s a great chance, also, to catch Rosenwinkel, who will almost certainly tour to support his invigorating solo album on Verve. He displays an intriguing command of the instrument that calls on the styles of past jazz men yet comes across thoroughly modern.