Good fellows

By JON GARELICK  |  October 20, 2008

Like others in jazz’s current wave, the Fellowship like folk harmonies out of Joni Mitchell — she even sings a song on its second album. This is a band of stellar soloists who don’t particularly care about solos — at their Newport festival set last summer, nearly a half-hour passed before I heard anything I’d call an improvised jazz solo. The through-composed aspect is especially true of Cowherd’s writing, which favors unfolding narratives as opposed to repeating cycles of 12- or 16- or 32-bar chord patterns. In its leaning on folk pop, its open-hearted romanticism, and its disregard for orthodoxy, the Fellowship’s music is the freshest jazz sound since Pat Metheny blew in from Missouri 30 years ago.

On the new Season of Changes (Verve), Cowherd’s 12-minute title track extends from its free-tempo somber chorale-like piano introduction to a repetition of the theme in the horns, then to a broad, up-tempo fanfare with a hard backbeat that introduces a secondary theme. Solos are arrayed across varying rhythmic and harmonic backdrops, from Rosenwinkel’s soaring, majestic statement to Butler’s contrasting ruminative phrases over a tertiary theme, and Walden’s testifying over a vamp. Finally, the piece settles back into the original chorale. It sounds like a pop song opened out and expanded for jazz band. Blade’s “Stoner Hill,” meanwhile, is a beautiful slow AABA folk theme repeated in various combinations of instruments with contrasting loud and soft dynanimcs and no improvised solos.

When I reach Blade over the phone in Oakland’s East Bay, where he’s playing a week with the Shorter Quintet at Yoshi’s, he tells me that “Stoner Hill” is the name of a neighborhood in his home town of Shreveport, Louisiana, and also the name of the school where his mother taught kindergarten for 25 years. “It’s a memory song, but in its brevity and through-composed character, hopefully it evokes a feeling. I respond to that as much as the improvisational aspect of the playing in the band.” He tells me about happening on a Patsy Cline song in the Pandora program on his computer. “The power just in her singing this song — this two-minute rendering — for me, I like that the Fellowship Band can do that.”

Blade and the Kentucky-raised Cowherd met at Loyola University in New Orleans 20 years ago. They would play as part of the rhythm section for student auditions, and since bass players were often otherwise engaged on the New Orleans club scene, they ended up jamming a lot as a duo. Thomas met them when he came to study at the University of New Orleans; Blade later met Walden, Butler, and Rosenwinkel through the New York scene. The band proper came together when Blade received an offer from Blue Note’s Bruce Lundvall (after two albums, they moved to Verve).

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