Drummer Brian Blade’s Fellowship Band is celebrating its 20th year with the release of its 5th album. What the band has lacked in frequency it has generally made up for with expansive feel and a tight sound. The new release, Body and Shadow, is unmistakably a Fellowship album – just listen to the hopeful and earnest Americana of the first track, “Within Everything” – though to my ears it doesn’t quite live up to its predecessors.
The Fellowship Band has always loved creating a sense of narrative across its albums, introducing stately full band instrumentals with solo tracks and working up to solos with long composed stretches. All of these elements are in play again. The hymn “Have Thine Own Way, Lord”, for instance, occupies two tracks on the album, played first as a short harmonium solo and immediately reprised in full band arrangement. Similarly, there are actually three iterations of the title composition, subtitled “Morning”, “Noon” and “Night” (in that order, a somber meditation for guitar, a somber meditation for guitar, keys and bass and a somber meditation for guitar, piano and winds), which act as bridges between other compositions on the album.
While the album gestures at grandness, it struggles to get off the ground. Body and Shadow is a short album, only 32 minutes stretched over 9 tracks, and it takes its time to get moving. It meanders in overly solemn, down tempo melancholy for the first 6 tracks before “Duality”, incidentally the first track with any recognizable solos or improvisation, including a fabulous turn by the pianist Jon Cowherd. Cowherd also penned the most successful track on the album, the closer “Broken Leg Days”, which grows into a blazing tenor saxophone solo over the limping, odd meters of the composition.
“Broken Leg Days” is a great song which recalls the best that the Fellowship Band has done, but it can’t quite support the whole album, which is otherwise lacking in payoffs, by itself. 3 stars