“Landrus shows he has the goods to take his muse down whatever path he chooses and produce a winner every time.”
This ending to my review on Brian Landrus’ last album Capsule (2011) is also an apt way to begin an assessment of his next album, Mirage.
As noted before, low reed ace Brian Landrus is making a huge impression in a small amount of time. Still only four years removed from his de facto introduction as a leader Forward, each of the three albums he’s made since then (all released in 2011) were meaningful steps forward, and so is the fourth one coming out, Mirage. For this album, Landrus carries forward his vision of electro/acoustic ideas introduced on Capsule and not insignificantly, adds a small string section to the mix.
Putting a small jazz combo and a classical violin/viola/cello section in the same room isn’t really a new idea; the Third Stream concept has been with us since at least the 50s. However, Landrus resurrects it, dusts it off and then revitalizes it but blending it in such a savvy way to his already original, appealing concept of jazz. That concept, introduced with his Kaleidoscope ensemble, means forging euphonious riffs, repeating figures or fully developed melodic ideas and lets his band create around that. It’s one helluva band, too. Rudy Royston (drums) and Nir Felder (guitar) carry over from Capsule while Frank Carlberg (piano, Rhodes) and bass great Lonnie Plaxico replace their coutnerparts from that prior record. Landrus’ latest big idea is personified by additon of violinists Mark Feldman and Joyce Hammann, as well as viola player Judith Insell and cellist Jody Redhage.
Landrus puts together the two worlds primarily by using his Kaleidoscope as the foundation and the string section as a resource to add depth to the harmonics and a soothing, urbane layer to the overall sound. The kind of approach has a real positive impact on a tune like “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” where the RnB feel is enhanced by strings deployed heavier when depth is needed and receded when a lean, naked groove is to be exposed. “Arrival” commences with an extended intro where the strings warming up like a symphony orchestra warms up at the same time that the main band is warming up like a jazz band warms up. Then the song runs to daylight, keyed by Felder’s lithe, sunny lines and then finally the theme fully emerges with the expanded combo playing it in a symbiotic arrangement.
Other times, the strings fully integrate themselves into the harmony, like the groove-heavy “The Thousands,” which gets going after a nifty Plaxico bass solo. And then there are moments where the songs stand out apart from how they’re arranged because, by gosh, they’re just very well written songs. Landrus didn’t let up in the songwriting department on a single song, but “Someday” and “Mirage” are bona fide gems, the latter boasting a sweet and passionate baritone sax solo from Landrus, which helps him to blend in with the strings so well, too. Landrus plays that sax alongside the viola at the beginning of “Sammy,” sounding very much like that stringed instrument.
To break up any potential for monotony, three brief unaccompanied interludes are spread out over the album. “A New Day” is just the string section, and it’s just long enough to show Landrus’ great magnitude in the area of melodic development. He reaches for a lightly-used contra alto clarinet, with which he plays circular patterns unaccompanied that draw you in without the need to be forceful. And the ending track “Kismet” highlight Landrus is a baritone soliloquy in one of the few moments where Landrus makes that big horn sound burly like most other baritones. He’s capable of getting any sound to fit the material out of any of the low reeds he uses, demonstrating that limiting himself to a baritone sax, bass sax, bass clarinet or that contra alto clarinet does nothing to limit his range.
Brian Landrus is the rare musician who can craft appealing music that’s also challenging and original, and do it so consistently. He doesn’t repeat himself from album to album and yet, the creative roll continues on Mirage.
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