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: