RAY SUAREZ, HOST:
Jazz drummer Brian Blade is best known for this kind of sound.
(SOUNDBITE OF WAYNE SHORTER'S "ORBITS")
SUAREZ: That's Blade playing with legendary saxophonist Wayne Shorter. But Blade has a very different side, too. For the past 20 years, the Louisiana-born musician and composer has quietly pursued a labor of love project, his own group called the Brian Blade Fellowship. The group's fifth album just came out. It's called Body and Shadow. Critic Tom Moon says it offers new thinking on the challenge of making jazz accessible.
TOM MOON, BYLINE: Brian Blade thrives on the intense interaction that's made Wayne Shorter's quartet a jazz treasure. But he doesn't go there all the time. With his own group The Fellowship, he explores calm, inward-looking music.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRIAN BLADE AND THE FELLOWSHIP BAND'S "BODY AND SHADOW (NOON)")
MOON: Blade named his group The Fellowship to reflect his musical values - unity, empathy, sensitivity. The group's core musicians have been playing together off and on for 20 years. They're rooted in jazz tradition. Blade met pianist and composer John Cowherd when both were studying music at Loyola University in New Orleans. So they know each other's moves, but they rarely fly off script the way Wayne Shorter's group does. Instead, the focus is almost always on some sort of melody.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRIAN BLADE AND THE FELLOWSHIP BAND'S "WITHIN EVERYTHING")
MOON: Asking jazz musicians to focus on themes, not variations, turns out to be crazy smart. It contributes to the group's uncommon chemistry. Blade says that his experiences recording with pop artists like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Norah Jones helped him appreciate the importance of melody. He and Cowherd write songs that have hints of gospel and country. They can seem almost plain at first. But they become profound as the musicians gingerly open them up.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRIAN BLADE AND THE FELLOWSHIP BAND'S "BROKEN LEG DAYS")
MOON: Since forever, there's been a conversation among musicians about what it takes to make jazz more accessible. The most obvious solutions usually involve embracing pop grooves. With these introspective songs, Blade's Fellowship suggests that something more fundamental might work as well - the lure of a lyrical, singable melody.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRIAN BLADE AND THE FELLOWSHIP BAND'S "TRAVELING MERCIES")
SUAREZ: Latest from the Brian Blade Fellowship is called "Body And Shadow." Our reviewer is Tom Moon.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRIAN BLADE AND THE FELLOWSHIP BAND'S "TRAVELING MERCIES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.