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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.

Gregg August’s Shattering, Epic New Album Confronts Racist Evil

Bassist Gregg August has somehow found the time to put out one of the most powerful, relevant albums in any style of music over the last several months. Dialogues on Race – streaming at Bandcamp – is a haunting, majestic, anguished large-ensemble suite that reflects on how Americans have been divided and conquered in the name of an archaic concept invented about five hundred years ago by psychotic slave traders as a justification for genocide.

Historically speaking, racism is a relatively recent construct. In the middle ages, if you were going around kidnapping and murdering people, you probably would have been hanged or beheaded. So the slavers came up with the novel proposition that lighter-skinned people are somehow superior to people of color.

There was money to be made in that murderous trade, and the fiction of civilized Europeans versus African savages was well marketed. They got enough Europeans to buy it, to the point that it lasted another three hundred fifty-plus years. Today we are seeing how the lockdowners are using that same dynamic, desperately trying to create an army of clueless maskers to demonize and attack the unmasked.

In his liner notes, August is quick to acknowledge the irony of being a white man tackling a subject that’s usually treated as “the Jew under the kitchen floor,’” that nobody talks about, as one friend of this blog recently put it. And as a jazz musician, August is keenly aware of issues of cultural appropriation. But ultimately, we need to lift every voice and sing truth to power as August does with this majestic, dynamically rich theme and variations for jazz nonet, string quartet and narrator.

August’s central theme is the 1955 murder of Emmitt Till. Interspersed among and often woven into the suite’s diverse movements are several smartly chosen poems exploring racism’s many ugly legacies, along with narrator Wayne Smith reading Till’s mother chillingly straightforward account of the aftermath of the murder.

The album’s first number, Sherbet introduces a broodingly bluesy central motive, up to a Mingus-esque bustle. Letter to America is a strolling, determindedly brassy, marching tune set to a tumbling, implied clave. The horns build a circling, harried intensity, down to pianist Luis Perdomo’s skeletal, ominous incisions. “We served you as a mirror, a lamp, a toy,” Smith intones. It’s a great poem. “Our bodies are your insides…we reflect your future.” Ken Thomson follows with a soulful bass clarinet solo, setting up trombonist Rafi Malkiel scatting through his horn.

Lacy sings Your Only Child, its blustery horn cadences matching the lyrics, Mamie Till asking “How could he have died so undignified? ”The epic I Rise follows an awakening trajectory with conversational, rhythmless horns, a Braxton-esque, massed swell and hauntingly pulsing waves that look straight back to Mingus. John  Bailey’s trumpet is the focal point, whether in a brooding Miles vein or jubilantly swinging; Thomson’s reedy bass clarinet delivers a moment of triumph.

Malkiel’s trombone and JD Allen’s tenor sax open Sky, a real throwback to the withering modal power that characterized August’s tenure in Allen’s trio. The majesty but also the ache as the group soar but also struggle against an overhanging presence is visceral. Allen’s saturnine spirals, shadowed by Perdomo, might be the most starkly insightful notes anybody’s played this year. Malkiel’s spacious solo afterward, over Perdomo’s icy accents, is no less impactful.

August bows broodingly as he revisits Your Only Child’s theme. I Sang in the Sun, a somber, spacious setting of a Carolyn Kizer poem, is an sobering reflection on white wilingness to embrace the bravery of being out of range when it comes to the murder of black people. The sarcasm of Perdomo’s loungey, easygoing solo is crushing.

The third reprise of Your Only Child, sung by Shelley Washington, opens with Middle Eastern gravitas from the string quartet, Allen’s sagacious spare lines over their swells. The juxtaposition between the otherworldly strings and the low horns could be the album’s most darkly gorgeous interlude; August follows with solo bass that echoes the Bach cello suites.

Sweet Words on Race is a jaunty, tightly undulating latin jazz number in the same vein that August has mined so often throughout his previous work. Thomson and saxophonist John Ellis spar animatedly to introduce The Bird Leaps, an altered, playfully voiced take on 30s Basie swing. August’s Blues Finale offers a glimpse of hope with its determined New Orleans shuffle groove and Frank Lacy’s gruff vocalese. The number of levels this music exists on is stunning: this could easily be the best jazz album of 2020.

And while we’re on the topic of the Emmitt Till murder, the most evil person in the whole group responsible wasn’t one of the men who lynched him. It was Carolyn Bryant, the woman who lied to her husband – one of the actual murderers – that Till had whistled at her, setting off the deadly mob..

A Macabre Masterpiece From John Ellis and Andy Bragen

Considering how busy tenor saxophonist John Ellis always seemed to be – before the lockdown, anyway – it’s something of a shock that he was able to find the time to come up with his latest album, The Ice Siren – streaming at Bandcamp – a masterpiece of noir assembled as a collaboration with lyricist Andy Bragen. It’s also arguably the best thing, and definitely the darkest project Ellis has ever been involved with, in a career as one of the most sought-after musicians in jazz for both big bands and smaller ensembles.

The obvious comparison is pioneering, carnivalesque 90s band Kamikaze Ground Crew, who brought a lithe improvisational component into noir, cinematic circus rock tableaux. Is this jazz? Noir cabaret? Art-rock? All that and more, which is why it’s so interesting.

The opening theme, Graveyard Visit, begins with a striking violin cadenza over stark cello and slowly morphs into a macabre chromatic vamp that strongly brings to mind both Philip Glass’ Dracula score as well as Carol Lipnik‘s creepiest work, with the ghosts of Brecht and Weill nodding approvingly out there somewhere. But some of the phantasmagoria here has coy touches: devious accents from Marcus Rojas’ tuba and Miles Griffith’s wry, wobbly vocals over a backdrop that shifts from blithe bossa back to menace.

Ellis finally gets to interject a vividly searching solo over the eerily lingering, vamping backdrop in Heaven or Hell. Gretchen Parlato’s ghostly vocalese over Mike Moreno’s spare, broodingly picked guitar and Chris Dingman’s glitttering vibraphone meld into an increasingly lush horror theme.

Parlato sings Melusina’s Siren Song with an airy angst over a steady, slow bass clarinet pulse that expands back to a sweeping, distantly enticing variation on the central Lynchian theme. Griffith returns for a duet with Parlato in the disquietingly atmospheric She Shows Her Face, the most avant garde number here.

The orchestration grows blippier and balmier in Little Man, but by the end the disquiet returns. Ellis’ liquid clarinet delivers klezmer tinges over a brisk bounce in the next-to-last number, Cold, the most circusy track here. The wistfully waltzing conclusion, Entombed in Ice is chilling, literally and metaphorically. This is a frontrunner for best album of 2020 from a cast that also includes violinists Hiroko Taguchi and Olivier Manchon, violist Todd Low, cellist,Christopher Hoffman and percussionists Daniel Sadownick and Daniel Freedman.

Kamikaze Ground Crew Revisit Their Playfully Carnivalesque, Distinctively Erudite Downtown Sound at Roulette

Kamikaze Ground Crew played a somewhat under-the-radar but nonetheless historic reunion show at Roulette last week. Those in attendance might not have completely packed Barbes, where co-founder Gina Leishman played most recently, but they would have sold out the Stone and would have thrilled the tourists at Jazz at Lincoln Center, whether or not that crowd would have recognized them. And many of them would have. This downtown supergroup dates back to the early 80s, when they were a real circus band. There’s been some turnover in the lineup over the years: this was the 90s edition, Leishman more or less out in front and joined by Steven Bernstein on trumpet, Peter Apfelbaum on tenor sax, Doug Wieselman on multi-reeds, Marcus Rojas on tuba, Art Baron on trombone and Kenny Wollesen on drums and gongs Together they delivered a cinematic program that shifted elegantly from amusement to suspense, making tango out of Stravinsky, a wary stroll out of Stockhausen, kaleidescopically disasssembling noir cabaret and taking several detours in a sideshow direction.v

The funniest part of the evening, and the one that harked back most vividly to the band’s punk-jazz roots, was when everybody put down his or her horn and picked up a beer bottle. Bernstein had meticulously adjusted the level in each of them to deliver a specific pitch. Then the whole group blew a surprisingly tight horn chart on their bottles. All that extra beer didn’t seem to affect the trumpeter – although Leishman grinningly recounted how the whole band had to do a lot of drinking in rehearsal to get the part right.

She opened on piano, leading the band through a moody, carefully orchestrated, slowly pulsing new number, switching to alto sax and then back to piano. By the time the show finally wrapped up, almost two hours later, she’d also played baritone sax, ukulele and accordion. Apfelbaum provided judicious resonance and one of the night’s most mysterioualy captivating moments, a long, almost imperceptibly crescendoing solo while Wieselman spiraled artfully through the mix, Wollesen coloring the songs with his rims and hardware and finally the deep-space boom of the gongs. The brass alternated between looming, portentous swells and unleashed exuberance, Rojas opening one number with a solo that veered from comedic to a completely unexpected, frantic chase riff.

They made an early Ellingtonian strut out of Robert Johnson’s Rolling and Tumbling, coalescing slowly out of a flutter of individual voices. A new diptych by Wieselman began as variations on a deceptively simple circular phrase and finally rose out of its slow, whirlpooling chart to more animated terrain. The night’s most overtly noir moments came during a Piazzolla number that shifted back and forth between bustling 50s noir jazz, dixieland flair and a murky interlude midway through. A couple of slow, altered swing numbers souned like the long buildups to the circus acts they probably were written for. And Leishman entreated the audience to listen closely to the Bach-like beauty in a Brecht-Weill number that she’d sliced and diced to bring out every bit of longing its central, canon-like melody before pulling it all together and singing the wistful song pretty much straight up.

Bernstein and Baron got to cut loose the most on a trio of boisterous New Orleans shuffles in the same vein as the former’s recent work with his band the Hot 9, with pianist Henry Butler. Since each band member is involved in so many other projects, there’s no telling if and when this group will reconvene. If there was any band who were before their time, this is them.

Beyond the indie classical and the avant garde stuff that Roulette programs – Glenn Branca is bringing his guitar orchestra here on Oct 8, which should raise the roof – the venue books a lot of jazz as well, no surprise since the space’s original Tribeca incarnation was a jazz loft. On Oct 16, veteran alto saxophonist Oliver Lake begins a contrasting two-night stand. The first night, trumpeter Josh Evans’ Quintet opens for Lake’s Big Band. The second night, Oct 18 pairs two especially interesting postbop trios: trombonist/crooner Frank Lacy with a rhythm section of Kevin Ray and Andrew Drury followed by Lake with Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille. Showtime is 8 PM; $20 adv tix are highly rcommended.

Kill Henry Sugar Bring Their Subtly Amusing, Erudite Folk Noir and Americana Back to Barbes

For the last few months, smartly lyrical Americana rock duo Kill Henry Sugar – guitar and banjo luminary Erik Della Penna and his similarly nuanced, artful drummer bandmate Dean Sharenow – have held down a monthly 8 PM Friday residency at Barbes. They’re back this Friday, May 6 at 8, followed by Big Lazy, a band you presumably know about if you spend any time at all at this blog  – and which Sharenow has drummed for in a pinch. If you’ve just stumbled on this page, reverb guitar, noir cinematics and crime jazz are their thing. Are they this blog’s favorite band? Along with Beninghove’s Hangmen and Karla Rose & the Thorns, maybe.

Kill Henry Sugar’s Barbes show last month was a lot of fun…and despite the early hour in Park Slope, they packed the place. Sharenow laid down a misterioso swing groove with his brushes as Della Penna launched into a moody, minor-key broodingly pensive narrative, like a tropically-tinged Tom Waits. Della Penna contemplated the ongoing brain drain from New York in the wryly swaying Tex-Mex inflected number after that: the girl at the center of the center of the story “can’t stand the smell of the bourgeoisie” and ends up considering nursing school in Santa Fe. They did another couple of funny ones after that, the jazzily shuffling, indelibly urban Neighbors, and then the tongue-in-cheek Air Conditioned Nightmare, propelled by Sharenow’s jaunty staccato thump with his brushes on the snare.

“Now I have the bomb, but it won’t fall on you,” Della Penna teased over his signature spare, lingering chordlets on Babylon, a snarky post-Cold War narrative, joined by tuba maestro Marcus Rojas, who added unexpectedly plaintive upper-register work. Della Penna warned the crowd that they’d never shared a stage before, but the chemistry was seamless. And this was a big deal: while they’ve played on and off with low-register instruments, they went bassless long before the White Stripes.

As expected, the best song of the night was a chilly, offhandedly murderous version of Mussolini, a cruelly nonchalant illustration of what goes around coming around with a vengeance over Sharenow’s resolute stomp. Rojas gave a surrealistically blippy intro to the doomed desert rock tune after that. They took things down with a wistfully pastoral, waltzing early 1900s reminiscence after that, shades of Matt Keating, then picked things up with a Stonesy drive and subtle hints of gospel. They’re likely to bring all these flavors and more – and who knows, maybe the tuba – to Barbes this Friday.

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.