CD review: Brian Landrus Kaleidoscope

(Blueland Records BLR-2013)

Brooklyn-based Landrus is a young exponent of the low woodwind: baritone saxophone, bass clarinet, bass flute, contra alto clarinet (sounds like a moderately counter-revolutionary instrument) and bass saxophone (much more the sound of freedom, cf Josef Skvorecky!) in the course of this 12-track album.

Kaleidoscope is a quintet with Nir Felder on electric guitar, Frank Carlberg on Fender Rhodes and piano, Lonnie Plaxico on acoustic and electric bass, Rudy Royston on drums, with an additional string quartet led by violinist Mark Feldman, the whole ensemble conducted by Ryan Truesdell.

So, if the leader’s name is not familiar to you, some of those other names will be. Landrus and Truesdell studied together under Bob Brookmeyer at the New England Conservatory, and the former was a crucial player in the latter’s exceptionally fine Gil Evans album, Centennial, a track of which won a Grammy earlier this year. Landrus has also been playing in Esperanza Spalding’s touring band.

Mirage is an expansive album which feels like it takes the listener on a journey. It’s relatively unhurried, full of great tunes and textures, and the arrangements have an orchestral originality to them. We are far more in programmatic territory here than in head and solo country. Landrus’s chosen instruments mean that although he has some gorgeous spotlight solos, he is very much an ensemble player for the most part, and it is writing and arranging which come first.

The rhythm team is as tasty as you’d expect, digging in nicely on the reggae I’ve Been Told; the strings are beautifully used, here as accompaniment, there as a crucial melodic line, here as texture, there as counter-melody. Guitar and keys work sensitively together in the harmony area.

Felder is a particularly characterful soloist and one has the feeling he is integral to Landrus’s writing, and that the leader is speaking through him, or rather has chosen him as a vital mouthpiece. The contrasting textures of gritty baritone saxophone against the bell-like smooth chords of the guitar are used to full effect on The Thousands.

The title track is a particular highlight, an expansive and semi-illusive landscape emerging as it does from the deep pot-holing explorations of Landrus’s solo contra alto clarinet on Reach.

It opens with richly romantic string writing, which then gives way to quietly funky Rhodes, rhythm guitar, and rim shots, then the bari and guitar stating the hugely catchy melody over the top while the strings support from behind (the tune feels like the kind of thing that might make Snarky Puppy’s Michael League grin). Felder’s solo is perfectly paced and he moves from clipped, slightly dampened notes to increasingly flowing lines as the rhythm team tightens and tightens behind him and the strings glide. Royston gets choppier behind Landrus’s bari solo, with the strings replaced by Rhodes comping.

Most of the tracks have this kind of detailed arrangement and development, making this a marvellously eventful trip, while never feeling too busy or bitty. There is the flow and variety of the best road trips here.

Highly recommended, and here’s a taste:

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Categories: CD review

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