Thursday, September 19, 2013

Review: Mirage - The Brian Landrus Kaleidoscope

Personnel: Brian Landrus: baritone saxophone, bass clarinet, bass flute, contra alto clarinet, bass saxophone; Nir Felder: guitar; Frank Carlberg: Rhodes, piano; Lonnie Plaxico: acoustic & electric bass; Rudy Royston: drums; Mark Feldman: violin; Joyce Hammann: violin; Judith Insell: viola; Jody Redhage: cello; Ryan Truesdell: conductor.

The recording begins, appropriately enough, with “Arrival,” which starts with some free-form improvising from the rhythm players plus bass clarinet, with some background held notes provided by the strings.  Royston sets up a mid-tempo groove, and then Felder breaks into a fluid electric guitar solo with the strings playing chords in the background.  Then Landrus on bass clarinet and Felder play a pretty melody in unison, the music sounding a bit like McCoy Tyner’s Fly with the Wind.  Feldman (I assume) plays a free-wheeling, too-brief violin solo.  The cut ends with a dense layer of background provided by the strings and rhythm section along with some electric piano improvising as Felder and Landrus dig in on the theme.

“Sammy” starts out with Landrus on baritone sax in loose unison with cello on a slow, simple melody.  Then after a pretty violin line against an insistent bass pattern in the background, Landrus and the strings play a mid-tempo, descending melody line.  Landrus and Felder then improvise casually in tandem for a good stretch, playing well off each other, Royston in a rock-solid groove behind them.  The cut fades out on the melody moving through some key modulations along with some laid-back improvising.     

“Don’t Close Your Eyes” has a slow, coy, pop-type theme, played by guitar and bari sax in unison, with a languid rock groove and a clever background from the strings.  Carlberg then contributes a cool, funky electric piano solo.  Then Landrus joins in with a funky solo of his own on bari sax.  Felder adds a brief solo with some stabbing notes from the strings in the background.

“A New Day” is a pretty, short, through-composed piece featuring the string quartet plus bass clarinet with the rhythm section laying out.

“The Thousands” begins with a fleet-fingered, unaccompanied bass solo.  Then bari sax and violin play in unison on another appealing melody, at a snappy upper mid-tempo, with a nice use of the strings in the background.  Landrus contributes a fluid, melodic bari solo.  Then the cut ends with some fine interplay between acoustic piano, guitar, and bari sax, with help from a simmering Royston.

“Someday” is a gentle, minor-key jazz waltz, with Felder and one of the violins in unison on the theme.  Then Landrus on bass clarinet plays the theme in unison with the strings.  Felder then contributes a soulful solo with gliding lines.  Landrus then plays a gently swinging bass clarinet solo.  There’s a string quartet interlude, and the cut closes with Felder and Landrus in unison on the theme.

“Reach” is a playful little exercise in which Landrus runs minor-key phrases from the top to the bottom of his contra alto clarinet.

“Mirage” has the string quartet introducing the cut with an emotional arrangement of a segment of the theme.  The cut goes into a groove appropriate for a soul tune, led by electric piano.  Landrus then basically sings the gentle and soulful theme through his bari sax, with Felder joining him and the strings providing a rich but understated background.  Felder then plays a well-developed solo that gradually builds in intensity.  Landrus then plays a mellow but agile solo on the baritone, edging into the altissimo to dramatic effect, with stellar support from Felder and Royston; in the middle of the solo, the strings enter in the background.  Then the string quartet takes the spotlight briefly again with Royston added.  Felder and Landrus repeat the theme in unison, and then a single violin takes over the theme with just the other string players for background.  This cut is a real gem.

On “I’ve Been Told,” Felder and Royston provide a gentle but solid reggae background, with Landrus (on bass clarinet and overdubbed bass flute) and a violin in unison on the theme.  Then Felder plays a brief but bluesy, ear-catching solo.  Then Landrus plays an elegant bass clarinet solo, also brief.  Finally, after a repeat of the theme, Landrus plays a breathy, fluttering bass flute improvisation against a dense background, which indicates that he should feature this instrument more frequently.

“Three Words” has a bluesy, mid-tempo groove, and Landrus plays the romantic, slick theme (almost like a Steely Dan tune) on bari sax.  The beat picks up in intensity and Landrus plays a funky, heartfelt solo.  Felder then adds a typically attractive, skillful solo. 

“Jade” has a slow, rock-ish beat with the strings laying down a repeated background phrase.  The strings then begin the theme, simple but pretty, with Landrus soon joining in on bass clarinet.  Feldman (I assume) then plays an intense but lyrical solo.  Then Landrus solos, marrying impressive technique with lyricism.  After a repeat of the theme, the string quartet ends the cut.

The final cut, “Kismet,” like “Reach,” is another a cappella deep-register exercise, this time slow and soulful, on bass sax.  One gets the impression Landrus could spin out attractive melodies all day long.

Mirage has a remarkable, star-heavy cast, and these players do beautiful work as soloists and within the ensemble.  (The roster also includes conductor Ryan Truesdell, whose Gil Evans project made a big splash last year.)  I’m particularly impressed with Felder and Royston, both of whom we’ve seen before on AJS (here, here, here, and here).  (I can’t see Royston’s name on a personnel list anymore without thinking “money in the bank.”)  However, the solos are well contained, and the recording strikes me as largely an exercise in composition and arranging.  Landrus has a great gift for producing infectious melodies (which extends to his improvising), and his use of a string section is free of cliché and gimmickry.  Landrus’s soloing on his low-register woodwinds is also distinctive.  On his saxophones and clarinets, he has a burly, rounded tone and a thoughtful, unhurried approach, which seems fitting for his instruments’ natural gravity, unlike many baritone saxophonists who treat the instrument like a lower register be-bopping alto sax (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  For its distinctive approach to composition, arranging, and low-register woodwind improvising, as well as excellent solo and ensemble work from a stellar cast, Mirage is something of a musical treasure chest. 

P.S. Landrus has generously provided a number of the cuts from Mirage on his YouTube channel.  Here is the YouTube copy of the title cut, one of my favorites on the recording:

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

We Have a Winner

Congratulations to Melissa Aldana for winning the 2013 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition.  Also congrats to Tivon Pennicott and Godwin Louis for taking 2nd and 3rd place (respectively).

If you haven't checked out the AJS review of Aldana's recording, Second Cycle, here it is.  Based on the expertise and maturity Aldana displays on that recording, I'm not surprised she won.

On edit: Here is a nice little write-up on the competition final round and the winner in A Blog Supreme.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Update: 2013 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition Finalists

The results are in: The three finalists for the 2013 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition are: Godwin Louis, Melissa Aldana, and Tivon Pennicott!

(Kinda cool that AJS has already had some experience with two of the three finalists, here and here.)

The finals are tomorrow night; results will be posted here.

2013 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition Semi -Finals Live Webcast, Sunday, 9/15, 1-5 PM

As I post this, the Semi-Finals of the 2013 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition are being webcast from here:

2013 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition Semi-Finals Webcast

Sad to say, I have to work while this is going on (darn day job!), but it's great to have the opportunity to view online these future greats in their (relatively) early stages.

On edit: Peter Hum at the Ottawa Citizen's Jazzblog (for which AJS has a standing link and whose virtues we've extolled before) posted the entire proceedings of the 2013 TMIJSC Semi-Finals here, close to five hours' worth of saxophone magic!  So, when I have a spare five hours or so... 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Review: Into the Woodwork - Steve Swallow Quintet

Personnel: Steve Swallow: electric bass; Carla Bley: organ; Chris Cheek: tenor saxophone; Steve Cardenas: guitar; Jorge Rossy: drums

The recording begins with “Sad Old Candle,” a slow, melancholy, slightly whimsical tune.  Cardenas starts by picking out a simple line against a background of tenor sax and organ.  Then Bley takes the lead on the theme, Rossy providing an impressionistic background with cymbal rolls.  Cardenas then plays a gentle guitar solo.  Far from starting us out with a bang, this cut sounds like a prelude or a low-key overture.

“Into the Woodwork” is a spritely jazz waltz that starts with a pretty organ and guitar background.  Then Cheek solos with a husky but smooth tone, and his tone and phrasing bring to mind Stan Getz.  Cardenas then contributes a no-nonsense, swinging guitar solo.  The cut ends with the simple theme, comprised mostly of dotted half-notes, almost like a Burt Bacharach pop tune.

“From Whom It May Concern” has a slow, strolling melody (played by Cheek) that could pass for a Broadway show tune.  Cardenas then plays a solo composed of attractive single-note lines, Rossy on brushes in the background.  Cheek tells a romantic story in his fine solo, after which he restates the theme to close the cut.

“Back in Action” starts off with some snappy mid-tempo Rossy drum rolls and improvising, with guitar and organ occasionally playing a background phrase.  Cheek also comes in now and then with some background snippets.  Rossy dances around the drum kit with generally light-hearted, nimble improvising, and then Cheek briefly plays the whimsical melody and launches into a solo, sounding reminiscent of Stan Getz on his Captain Marvel recording, stringing together a series of smooth phrases.  Then Cheek and Cardenas play the theme together to close the cut.  This cut is a lot of fun, managing to be driving and relaxed at the same time.

“Grisly Business” is slow and bluesy and a bit sinister, beginning with some soulful, high register improvising from Swallow.  Bley then plays the slow theme, and there is some jumbled improvising from organ and drums with Swallow providing a bass line as an anchor in the background.  Then tenor sax and guitar play opposing lines (Cheek descending, Cardenas ascending), with Rossy adding spice in the background.

“Unnatural Causes” is a variation on the final tenor/guitar phrases of “Grisly Business,” taken at a faster tempo, again played by Cardenas and Cheek.  In a slick solo, Cardenas employs distortion and almost a country-music twang in his phrasing.  Then Cheek plays another solo of smooth, slippery lines with a bit of funkiness thrown in. 

For “The Butler Did It,” tenor sax and guitar trade phrases of the bluesy, slightly sing-songy, lower mid-tempo theme.  Cheek and Cardenas then trade a couple of choruses each, playing well off each other. 

“Suitable for Framing” starts with a slow and sweet duet between Swallow and Cardenas, the guitarist providing a pretty chord background for Swallow’s high-register bass guitar picking.  This is followed by a lyrical, elegant solo by Cardenas.  Cardenas plays the subtle theme to end the cut. 

“Small Comfort” features a lengthy waltz-time solo from Swallow, in which he mainly stays in the upper range of the bass, with light and skillful accompaniment from the other rhythm players (especially Bley).  Cheek then contributes a lyrical, enchanting solo and then plays the cut’s simple theme.  This leads to a cliff-hanger ending that sets up the next tune.

“Still There” is a pretty, mid-tempo, Pat Metheny-esque tune with a vaguely military theme, played on organ.  Cardenas takes the first solo, then Bley plays a low-key, breezy, somewhat quirky solo.  (She bases bits of her solo on the themes of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” and “Taps.”)  Then Cheek takes over with a deft, lyrical solo that develops nicely, climaxing with some fast runs.  This cut has another cliff-hanger ending.

On “Never Know,” Cardenas plays the theme--a ballad that has the feel of an old standard—and then contributes another attractive solo composed of laid-back, single-note lines.  Then Cheek plays a well-focused, old-school, Harry Allen-type solo and then the theme.  The cut ends with a Swallow bass line that leads into the final cut.

“Exit State Left” has a gently swinging, mid-tempo groove with Cheek and Cardenas playing a background phrase in harmony and then Bley playing the theme.  Cardenas then solos, using a distorted tone that adds some spice to his pretty lines.  Cheek then plays a bluesy solo with appropriately scooped notes, responding well to the groove.  Then Cheek and Bley repeat a line in unison, getting quieter and quieter until the cut closes on a blunt quarter note.

Into the Woodwork is a collection of smart, subtle, light-hearted music.  Since the cuts flow into one another and occasionally have cliff-hanger endings, the overall effect is of an organic whole, like a suite.  At first I thought this music was somewhat insubstantial, but it charms its way under your skin, to the extent that it can even seem poignant.  Regarding the improvising, Cardenas has the heaviest solo burden, and he’s a fine improviser, though to my ear his solos meander a bit and lack development.  Cheek’s playing is strong throughout; he has a husky, strong tone and displays a Stan Getzian style--less virtuosic but similarly smooth and lyrical.  Swallow steps out occasionally to good effect, though it would have been good to hear him solo even more.  Overall, if you’re looking for music to knock your socks off, Into the Woodwork probably won’t cut it, but if you like music that can gently sweep you off your feet with its subtlety and sophistication, this recording may well be your cup of tea.