Landrus’ Debut Disc Inconsistent But Interesting

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GENERATIONS / LANDRUS: Jeru Concerto. Orchids. The Warrior. Arrow in the Night. Arise. Human Nature. Ruby. Every Time I Dream / Brian Landrus Orchestra: Ralph Alessi, Igmar Thomas, tpt; Alan Ferber, tbn; Debbie Schmidt, Fr-hn; Mark Feldman, Sara Caswell, Joyce Hammann, Meg Okura, vln; Lois Martin, Nora Krohn, vla; Jody Redhage, Maria Jeffers, cellos; Jamie Baum, fl/al-fl; Tom Christensen, oboe/fl; Daryl Harper, cl; Brian Landrus, bar-sax/bs-cl; Michael Rabinowitz, bsn; Alden Banta, contra-bsn; Marcus Rijas, tuba; Brandee Younger, harp; Joe Locke, vib; Jay Anderson, bs; Lonnie Plaxico, bs/el-bs; Billy Hart, Justin Brown, dm; J.C. Sanford, cond / BlueLand Records BLR-2017

Brian Landrus is a baritone saxist and bass clarinetist who idolized Gerry Mulligan, performed in Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project and has worked with Bob Brookmeyer, Rufus Reid, Danilo Perez, Frank Kimbrough, Maria Schneider and Jerry Bergonzi, among others. This, his orchestra’s debut CD, due out July 28, encompasses the full extent of his jazz education and experience, wedded to various forms of dance music (more on that later) and a classical perspective of orchestration.

Before getting into my review, an observation. We’ve now had 90 years of innovative jazz orchestrators, and not just the famous names like Duke Ellington, Eddie Sauter, Gil Evans, Charles Mingus and George Russell, but also such highly creative talents as Don Redman, Bill Challis, Reginald Foresythe, Alec Wilder, George Handy, Jimmy Mundy, Paul Laval, Tadd Dameron, Pete Rugolo, Bob Graettinger, Rod Levitt, Allyn Ferguson, John Lewis, Clare Fischer, Don Ellis and Mulligan himself, who used classical instruments in a jazz context and—even more interestingly—jazz instruments in a classical context. They worked out, long ago, new and striking methods of jazz orchestration that were (and to some extent still are) mind-boggling in their use of coloration. All this, and more was covered in my magnum opus, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond. Yet too many modern jazz orchestrators tend to rely on the traditional and standard “book” of jazz orchestration, even when using strings, thinking themselves innovative if they happen to throw in a wordless soprano, a Theremin or an EWI for color.

In this orchestra, you will find such unusual instruments (even for a project such as this) as alto flute and contra-bassoon, but more importantly is the way Landrus uses these instruments. In the liner notes he admits the influences of Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky and Ravel, and this is all to the good.

What disturbed me was Landrus’ insistence on including elements of hip-hop, rock, funk and reggae into his compositions, none of which (and I am adamant on this subject) are either conducive or friendly to jazz. Funk, of course, is an outgrowth of R&B, and even as far back as the 1950s great jazz musicians such as Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker stayed as far away from R&B and early rock music as they possibly could. In its later state, funk is simply an insistent beat for dancing, and a stiff one at that. Both the hip-hop and reggae beats also impede rather than help the progression of jazz music, as Charles Mingus complained in the 1970s. The music of James Brown, Michael Jackson, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd have absolutely nothing to do with jazz. Better he should have picked up on the music of Professor Longhair and Dr. John, which does.

That being said, Landrus’ Jeru Concerto (named after Mulligan’s nickname) is a fascinating piece, eclectic in its style and largely focused on the ensemble. Landrus himself is the only soloist, which is appropriate. The opening figure sounds Mulligan-ish in outline, but the heavy reliance on the tuba playing backbeats is a startling touch. The music quickly melts into what I would call “Hollywood movie music scoring,” with the strings playing footballs (whole notes) over a surging beat and Landrus’ baritone saxophone. I was a bit disappointed that Landrus didn’t seem to know how such innovators as Mundy, Sauter and David Balakrishnan used strings, but I could hear that he was more focused on color than an interesting texture. I did, however, like the brass punctuations, particularly in the first movement, and despite my misgivings the music itself, as opposed to the scoring, developed interestingly.

The brief interlude (1:11) is a cadenza for Landrus on the bari sax, playing rapid sixteenths in serrated figures, while the second movement relies on creating warmth with low timbres—sort of a Gil Evans-ish sound without Evans’ remarkable tone mixtures. The melodic line here is quite lovely, however, and Landrus plays a nice solo over soft pizzicato strings and fills by the vibes. I was particularly impressed by the third movement; here, Landrus used his orchestral palette in a more innovative way, including soft string tremolos, and the music was deeper, more reflective than the preceding movement. This is an excellent piece of music, at least until the rock beat enters, but fortunately it was not too obtrusive here. Also excellent is the fourth and last movement, which has an asymmetric beat but sticks primarily to a jazz form of expression. Some of Landrus’ musical ideas in the moving lines of the accompaniment are quite interesting; with more innovative timbres, it would have been outstanding. I particularly liked his willingness to change moods and tempos within this movement, creating a sort of miniature suite as the finale to his concerto.

Orchids was composed in a single meditative moment “after two days of writing and dreaming.” The soloists here are Brandee Younger on harp and Landrus on the bass clarinet. The piece, written in E-flat, has a sort of loping Caribbean beat, perhaps related to reggae. The melodic line goes to the French horn while the upper winds, and then the violins, play interesting figures around it. Oddly, some of the winds sound just a hair flat in their held chords. An excitable interlude towards the end adds dramatic interest to the piece. Towards the end, both the tempo and the swing pick up and ride the piece out to the finish line.

The Warrior, written for Landrus’ father, is more of a gentle than a belligerent piece, although it gains in complexity and interest as it goes along. Again, there is some suspect pitch in the orchestra, here among the strings. I noticed that the album was recorded over two days, January 4-5, 2017, in Brooklyn. Perhaps the atmospheric pressure acted as a gremlin of sorts. Igmar Thomas plays a nice trumpet solo on this one, filling in some ideas and textures with the ensemble behind him on the second go-round, followed by vibist Joe Locke over a sax cushion at a more relaxed tempo. Mark Feldman’s violin solo put me in mind of Ray Nance, but it is Landrus’ baritone solo that arrests the ear the most.

Arise is a nice bossa-nova piece with a hard-to-define melodic line and slithering chords. The music becomes somewhat turgid harmonically, but interest is maintained by means of the subsidiary figures that come in and intermix with it; eventually, it almost sounds like a Mingus piece, even to the point of mixing flute/clarinet sonorities in the top line against low, meaty chord mixtures in the lower instruments. Human Nature is a Latin-tinged ballad, again with a vague melody, under which Landrus gives the tuba fast-moving figures to add interest. There are nice spot solos by Ralph Alessi (trumpet), Jamie Baum (flute) and Tom Christensen (flute), although in this case both the tune’s progression and its orchestration were fairly predictable.The orchestra, however, is again fully in tune on these and succeeding tracks.

Ruby is quite interesting rhythmically, ambiguous melodically and conventional orchestrally. I did, however, like Landrus’ combination of flute with muted trumpet for the background figures at one point. This piece was written for Landrus’ four-year-old daughter, whose artwork graces the album and booklet covers. Landrus’ baritone solo is the piece’s highlight.

We close out this set with Every Time I Dream, another slowish, Latin-tinged piece. It’s lyrical and whimsical, but doesn’t really develop except in the solos: Joe Locke on vibes, Landrus on bass clarinet and Alessi on trumpet. All in all, then, an interesting first excursion on disc for a young man who is still growing as a musician, composer and arranger.

I’ve made these comments along the way not to denigrate Landrus’ work, but rather to encourage him to widen his musical horizons. Sometimes artists feel that any criticism of their work is a form of cruelty or punishment, but I’m not that kind of person. When I hear a real talent that simply needs encouragement to widen their horizons, I say so to help them. Landrus is a gifted improviser and a good arranger, but with some further listening and experimentation I think he can go a long way.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz

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