At times, the music on Perceptual (due from Blue Note on April 11), from Brian Blade's Fellowship, has an aggressive swing that calls to mind the power of John Coltrane's classic quartet.
But there's a twist. Singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell shows up on the CD, delivering chilling vocals on Blade's "Steadfast." "Can you hear the baby crying?" the former folk-rocker sings. Mitchell's vocal lines are doubled by the pedal-steel-guitar swells of the band's Dave Easley, creating an overall haunting effect on the track.
"Having her sing on that piece worked out in a way that I could never have imagined, Blade, 29, said. "Her vocals bring about exactly the kind of emotion the song demands."
Mitchell participated to return the favor to Blade for touring and recording with her band.
Blade is one of several straight-ahead bandleaders Cassandra Wilson, Javon Jackson and John Scofield to name a few others who are experimenting with unusual instrumentation and arranging.
But Blade is a reluctant leader, relying on the full participation of his bandmates. "He is so laid-back, but with a clear vision," Easley said. "He sets the vibe, and then we go. I could be making more money playing other music, somewhere, but I love what I'm doing basically because of Fellowship."
Blade, a native of Shreveport, La., who now lives in Upstate New York, has earned his stripes as a leader, by being a first-call drummer for Kenny Garrett, Joshua Redman, Pat Metheny and many other jazz artists. He's also anchored the bands of rockers Bob Dylan, Daniel Lanois and Emmylou Harris in addition to Mitchell.
"Brian has a quality only the really great guys have, the ultimate commodity in a rhythm-section player: He can create a vibe. He has his own thing," guitarist Metheny said.
Blade is a virtuoso of polyrhythm, influenced by the master of that technique, Elvin Jones. "Elvin he was and is the man," Blade said.
But Blade is also sensitive with the brushes, which he wields to great effect on Fellowship pianist John Cowherd's composition "Reconciliation" (RealAudio excerpt) The song, featuring the soul-drenched, crying soprano of Melvin Butler, was inspired by a tragedy.
"That song is about the high-school shooting that occurred in Paducha, Ky., also the residence of the pianist," Blade said. "John's tune and my 'Variations of a Bloodline' [the multipart suite that anchors the album] really deal with issues like guns and violence. We try to make a social statement, but I want a listener to feel some joy from a song as well. An overarching emotional theme fits each song, while also being part of the total picture, which is what I'm after."
Rounding out the Fellowship are altoist Myron Walden, whose sinewy playing enlivens uptempo burners such as "Evinrude-Fifty (Trembling)," and bassist Chris Thomas, who's smooth and solid throughout.
But it's Easley's pedal-steel playing that really jumps out at the listener. "The pedal steel has been confined to country or pop music for way too long," Blade said. It gives great curvature to the music, and I need it in the orchestra." Blade's fellow Louisianan Lanois also contributes some pedal-steel guitar to Perceptual.
"In any situation, live or on record, I just want a listener to say 'Wow,' " Blade summed up. "Something is being expressed here with great depth and heart because that's what I get from all my favorite music."