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Revisiting a Lavish, Exquisitely Textured, Symphonic Big Band Album by Brian Landrus

Listening to one Brian Landrus album makes you want to hear more. It’s impossible to think of another baritone saxophonist from this era , or for that matter any other, who’s a more colorful composer. Landrus’ masterpiece so far is his titanic Generations big band album, which hit the web about four years ago and is streaming at Spotify. A grand total of 25 players go deep into its lavish, meticulously layered, completely outside-the-box charts .

It opens with The Jeru Concerto, equally inspired by the patron saint of baritone sax big band composition, Gerry Mulligan, as well as Landrus’ young son. Right off the bat, the band hit a cantering rhythm with distant echoes of hip-hop, but also symphonic lustre, the bandleader entering suavely over starry orchestration. He ripples and clusters and eventually leads the group to a catchy, soul-infused theme that could be Earth Wind and Fire at their most symphonic and organic.

A tightly spiraling solo baritone interlude introduces the second segment on the wings of the string section, Landrus’ soulful curlicues and spacious phrasing mingling with the increasingly ambered atmosphere and an unexpected, cleverly shifting pulse. The third movement calms again: watch lights fade from every room, until a more-or-less steady sway resumes. The textures, with harpist Brandee Younger and vibraphonist Joe Locke peeking up as bustling counterpoint develops throughout the group, are exquisite.

The conclusion begins with an altered latin groove, the bandleader shifting toward a more wary theme, neatly echoed in places by the orchestra, ornate yet incredibly purposeful. Landrus moves between a balmy ballad and anxious full-ensemble syncopation, cleverly intertwining the themes up to a casually triumphant final baritone solo.

Orchids, a surreal reggae tune, opens with a starry duet between Younger and Locke and rises to a big sax-fueled peak. Arise is even more playfully surreal, a haphazardly optimistic mashup of Kool and the Gang and Gershwin at his most orchestrally blustery. The Warrior has a Holst-like expanse underpinned by a subtle forward drive from the bass (that’s either Jay Anderson or Lonnie Plaxico) as well as incisive trumpet and violin solos and a triumphant march out.

Arrow in the Night is a comfortably nocturnal prelude with a dark undercurrent: things are not always as they seem. With its persistent, top-to-bottom light/dark contrasts, Human Nature comes across as a busier yet vampier take on classic Gil Evans.

Ruby, dedicated to Landrus’ daughter, has as much gentle playfulness as balminess, with puckish accents, a lyrical baritone solo and an undulating rhythm: this kid is fun, but she’s got a plan and she sticks to it. The ensemble close with Every Time I Dream, a catchy, dancingly orchestrated hip-hop theme akin to a more lavish take on Yaasin Bey’s adventures in new classical music, flurrying trumpet pulling the orchestra out of a momentary reverie.

An epic performance from a rotating cast that also includes drummers Billy Hart andJustin Brown, Jamie Baum, Tom Christensen, Darryl Harper, Michael Rabinowitz and Alden Banta among the reeds; Debbie Schmidt, Ralph Alessi, Igmar Thomas, Alan Ferber and Marcus Rojas as the brass; and a string section of Sara Caswell, Mark Feldman, Joyce Hammann, Meg Okura, Lois Martin, Nora Krohn, Jody Redhage and Maria Jeffers.

Romance Conquers Everything in Brian Landrus’ Lush, Quietly Thrilling Album

If there’s one thing the lockdowners fear even more than massive crowds of us assembling against them, it’s romance.

Millions of people out in the streets can get pretty fired up, but love conquers everything.

Ultimately, why did the lockdowners come up with their crazy six-foot rule? To keep people from falling in love. If we are kept in a constant state of terror, paralyzed by the fear that everyone we see is spreading a seasonal flu rebranded as the apocalypse, we are very easily divided and conquered.

But throughout history, people have fallen in love that no matter what, even in the Nazi death camps. And that’s why the lockdowners are destined to fail: because the one thing that could save them is alien to them, in fact, completely unattainable. Consider: there is no one more profoundly lonely than a tyrant. So today, let’s celebrate our ability to get close to the ones we love with one of the most unabashedly and eclectically romantic albums of the past several months: Brian Landrus’ For Now, streaming at Soundcloud.

Landrus is one of the kings of the lows. Baritone sax is his main axe. In moments where he wants to get particularly slinky, he’ll switch to the bass clarinet. He put out a lusciously lustrous big band album, Generations, about four years ago. But he obviously hasn’t gotten those epic, majestic sounds out of his system – and let’s hope he never does. This record is most notable for Landrus scoring Fred Hersch on piano, a guy who knows a little something about emotionally attuned sounds. Bassist Drew Gress and drummer Billy Hart keep things chill and close to the ground.

They open with The Signs, a genially blues-infused swing tune fueled right from the start by Michael Rodriguez’s low-key, purist trumpet. then Hersch brings his signature wit and erudition to the equation. Landrus echoes Rodriguez’s terseness; everybody harmonizes warmly at the end.

Hersch anchors Landrus’ wafting midrange and gentle upward spirals with an aptly crystlaline, chiming attack in the second number, Clarity in Time, bolstered lushly by the string quartet of violinists Sara Caswell, Joyce Hamman, violist Lois Martin and cellist Jody Redhage-Ferber.

Is The Miss a fond shout-out to a certain girl, or a lament for an opportunity gone under the bridge? Definitely the former, it seems, with Hersch, Rodriguez and the bandleader weaving over the pillowy backdrop.

Hart and Gress build a subtle latin pulse in JJ, Landrus’ simmering solo handing off to Rodriguez’s spacious optimism and Hersch’s balmy charm, although there’s something unexpected around the bend. Landrus switches to bass clarinet for the album’s brief. broodingly sweeping title track and sticks with it on an absolutely gorgeous, plaintive solo take of “Round Midnight, uncovering the song’s wounded inner bolero.

Back on the baritone, Landrus channels guarded hope and then genuine thrills in Invitation, which rises quickly to a mutedly cosmopolitan, anthemic bustle. By now, everybody is cutting loose more: it’s just plain killer.

Landrus overdubs an intertwine of bass clarinet and bass flute over a subtly cresdendoing upward drive in For Whom I Imagined. Likewise, he sticks with the bass flute as Rodriguez puts on his mute for The Night Of Change, a lively, allusively tropical jazz waltz.

With its brassy thicket of an intro, The Second is basically a segue, a calmly loping, serenely triumphant number that echoes one of the album’s big influences, Harry Carney With Strings.

Her Smile has an irresistible cheer and several LOL moments, the strings more energized then ever. Caswell following Landrus with a jauntily swinging solo of her own.

They go back to waltz time for The Wait, Hersch’s expectant joy matched by Gress, Landrus’ bass clarinet spiraling fondly up the scale. He’s one of many – this blog is another – who assert that Hersch is this era’s most insightful interpreter of Monk on the piano, so it makes sense that the two would close the album with a casually expansive, late-night take of Ruby My Dear. Seldom has romance been so dynamically portrayed, in both ups and downs, as Landrus does here.

A Mighty, Majestic Big Band Debut from Christopher Zuar

Let’s say you want to start your career with a real bang. You don’t just want to slip in via the back door – you want to smash a grand slam on the first pitch you see in the majors. That’s pretty much what Christopher Zuar did with his debut recording, Musings, which hasn’t hit Spotify yet although there are a few tracks up at Sunnyside Records’ page. With the aid of producer Mike Holober, the young-ish (20s) composer assembled a titanic nineteen-piece crew of some of this era’s most distinguished names in big band jazz to play his lavish, lyrical charts. The result is the year’s best jazz debut – nothing else comes close. They’re playing Symphony Space on Dec 15 at 7:30 PM; cover is $22. If large ensemble jazz is your thing, you’d be crazy to miss this.

Zuar comes out of the Jim McNeely school of lush jazz orchestration, and there are echoes of the serpentine sweep of Maria Schneider as well here. But ultimately, this a toweringly individualistic statement. For all the epic gramdeur, there’s purpose, and drive, and eclectic influences as diverse as latin, Brazilian and baroque music.The opening track, Remembrance, springboards off a very simple octave riff and builds tension around a root note, in a Marc Ribot vein. At the center is a long, expressively nuanced Dave Pietro alto sax solo.

Frank Carlberg’s austere piano opens the steady, Bach-inspired Chaconne with a sly allusion to an infamous Led Zep riff, drummer Mark Ferber’s misterioso brushwork and bassist John Hebert’s minimalistic punches grounding the bright, brassy swells overhead as Zuar works another famous tune into the equation. Disquieting echo phrases mingle and flutter as Vulnerable States opens, Jo Lawry’s crystalline vocalese sailing over an uneasy, latin-tinged bustle: Zuar employs that superb voice as impactfully as Asuka Kakitani did with Sara Serpa on her similar blockbuster of a debut a couple of years ago.

Ha! (The Joke’s On You) – a shout-out to Zuar’s bubbe – references the baroque with its call-and-response along with a fiery, horn-driven vaudevillian funk surrealism driven by Pete McCann’s frenetically crescendoing wah guitar. Artfully fragmented voices intersperse, converge and then join forces as the ballad So Close Yet So Far Away coalesces, tenor player Jason Rigby’s turn from wistful to gritty triumph taking centerstage, down to a long, suspenseful outro

Anthem has chattering Brazilian tinges, a dancing bass solo and a big vocal hook from Lawry,. Lonely Road, a reflection on the systematic destruction of Zuar’s beloved West Village in the ongoing blitzkrieg of gentrification, is a gem of a miniature rich with elegaic counterpoint: it quietly screams out for the composer to make a big wrecking ball out of it like the other numbers here.

The album winds up with its lone cover, a lithely bittersweet take of Egberto Gismonti’s 7 Anéis,  a striking, nebulously furtive interlude punctuated by swirly soprano sax at its center. This album is genuinely spectacular effort that also comprises the inspired, energetic work of woodwind players Ben Kono, Lucas Pino and Brian Landrus, trumpeters Tony Kadleck, Jon Owens, Mat Jodrell and Matt Holman, trombonists Tim Albright, Matt McDonald, Alan Ferber and Max Seigel. You’ll see this as this blog’s pick for best jazz debut of 2016 when the full list is published at NPR next week.

Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project Does It Again Live at the Jazz Standard

Pretty much everybody, at least in the jazz world, agreed that Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans, by conductor and Evans scholar Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project, was the best album of 2012. You rarely see that kind of consensus. Even for an ambitious jazz bandleader, it was an enormously labor-intensive achievement. Truesdell also left himself little wiggle room for a sequel: pretty much anything was destined to be anticlimactic. So Truesdell – who has probably spent more time unearthing rare and previously unknown Evans compositions and arrangements than anyone else – flipped the script. Rather than emphasizing the iconic big band composer’s genre-smashing, paradigm-shifting later works, the group’s new live album, Lines of Color features a lot of older material. It’s also on the upbeat side: Evans’ music is Noir 101 core curriculum, and what’s here tends to be more lighthearted than Evans typically is. So there’s another cult audience – the oldtimey swing crowd – that will probably love this if they get to hear it. You can hear this mighty, stormy, dynamically rich, twenty-plus-piece group when they play their annual residency at the Jazz Standard starting this Thursday, May 14 and running through the 17th, with sets at 7:30 and 10 PM. It’s pricy: $30, and $35 on the weekend, but it’s worth it. Remember, the club doesn’t have a drink minimum (although they have a delicious and surprisingly affordable menu if you feel like splurging).

The new album opens with a punchy, sleek take of the noir waltz Time of the Barracudas, from the iconic 1964 album The Individualism of Gil Evans. On the heels of a bouncy Marshall Gilkes trombone solo, tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin takes it up with an aptly marionettish pulse through a series of a playful hints at endings. The band follows by reinventing Bix Beiderbecke’s Davenport Blues as a lustrous slow drag, Mat Jodrell’s trumpet carrying its triumphant New Orleans tune much of the way. This version is notable for being exactly the way Evan originally wrote it before many better-known revisions, right down to the second line-flavored break midway through.

Avalon Town both embodies its dixieland origins and transcends them – those oceanically eerie close harmonies as it opens are a prime example of how Evans could take something utterly generic and make magic out of it. And you thought you knew (or wish you’d forgotten) Greensleeves? Just wait til you hear the mighty outro and warily tasty Marshall Gilkes trombone solo that concludes it.

John Lewis’ Concorde, another track from The Individualism of Gil Evans, has more of a jet-age ebullience and plushness than the uneasily bossa-tinged original – here Lois Martin’s viola plays Lewis’ original righthand figure for piano. Singer Wendy Gilles does a marvelously nuanced job, ranging from fullscale angst to playful cajolery on Can’t We Talk It Over, over a pillowy backdrop with Evans’ signature high reed/low brass dichotomy. Later on, she offers an elegantly cheery take of Sunday Drivin’.

Gypsy Jump, an early work from 1942, reveals that already Evans was doing things like hinting at Tschaikovsky and opening with a figure he’d recycle memorably later on with Miles Davis. It’s lternately neblous and disarmingly oldtimey, McCaslin’s sax enhancing the former and Steve Kenyon’s clarinet the latter. Then the band makes a medley of Easy Living, Everything Happens to Me – centered around Gilles’ heartfeld, angst-driven, tersely bluesy phrasing – and another Johnny Mercer tune, Moon Dreams, which builds to a galactic sweep, dreamy JMW Turner colors over that omnipresent low, murky pulse.

Just One of Those Things is another mashup of vintage swing and lush sophistication, Steve Wilson’s purposefully fluttering yet unresolved soprano sax solo at the center. The album ends with a take of How High the Moon that’s on the slow side – at least for a song that so often gets played lickety-split – with an exchange of barely bar-length solos frou throughout the band, bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Lewis Nash pushing it with what’s practically a shuffle beat. You like epic? You like counterintuitive? You like venues with exquisite sound? The album was recorded in this very same space, most likely in front of a sold-out house, but it’s a big-studio quality production. Some if not all of it is up at Truesdell’s webpage along with tracks from that amazing first album.