CD reviews: The Brian Landrus Quartet (US) vs. Sweetback (France)

CD reviews by William Harvey

Artist: The Brian Landrus Quartet
Label: Blueland Records
Genre: Jazz

Brian Landrus’s latest studio recording, Traverse, displays his talents as a bandleader, composer, and improviser on both baritone sax and bass clarinet. For this project Landrus assembled an all star band including Billy Hart on drums, Michael Cain on piano, and Lonnie Plaxico on bass. The album consists of one standard and seven originals, three of which were co-written with Cain. Each composition has it’s own distinct character yet fit well together in the context of the album as a whole. Landrus’s melodies and solos are fresh, lyrical, and without clichés.
Like many great jazz quartet leaders before him, Landrus often steps back and lets his rhythm section groove and react to the music that has happened or set a mood for the coming melody and solo of the leader. Landrus displays a great level of musical maturity in his use of space, a quality rarely found in a saxophonist as technically gifted as he is. Although he is playing bari and bass clarinet, Landrus is clearly influenced by great tenor players such a Charles Lloyd or Joe Henderson, most apparent in his sense of phrasing and warm tone in addition to interactive playing with his quartet.

Overall the album is tastefully balanced. Most of the tracks are under five minutes long with nice variation of tempos and styles between them. Landrus even knows when not to use the band. On one track “Soul and Body,” he stands alone playing a heartfelt solo improvisation which functions as an intro to the standard “Body and Soul”, in which the band rejoins. Also, on “Lone” and “Soundwave”, Michael Cain proves to be a most ideal accompanist for Landrus in two intimate duets. Sonically the mix and production quality are top notch as no corners were cut to make this album sound as clear as any jazz album in its category. In 2011 Traverse will surely hold it’s own in the midst of notable modern jazz albums.

Artist: Sweetback
Title: The Lost and Found Republic
Label: Yotanka
Genre: electro accoustic Jazz

In September of 2009 the French trio, Sweetback, released their second album The Lost and Found Republic. The core group consists of saxophonist/percussionist Erik Sevret, upright bassist Nicolas Meslien, and Mehdi Ennermri on drums. In this album they manage to disprove all stereotypes of what a jazz trio can do. I say jazz trio because nine times out of ten this combination of instruments is associated with jazz music, but in this album Sweetback takes an entirely separate approach.

For this project Sweetback called on three additional instrumentalist and the help of producer Anthony Harcourt to create a high energy album of experimental groove and deep funk. The strength of their songs lie deep in the emphasis on groove and catchy riffs along with tight horn arrangements, an intense level of studio production which often manipulates sounds recorded by the instrumentalist.

All songs were composed by Sweetback with the exception of “Getting Even,” a collaboration with rapper Napoleon Maddox. The music is most fitting with Maddox’s dark and provocative lyrics providing perfect imagery. At times I was convinced I was listening to an electronic album created by a DJ who sampled catchy horn, drum, and bass riffs; although I have the feeling this is the illusion Sweetback was hoping to create.

This is not a jazz album in the sense of deep artistic undertones meant to be interpreted in the confines of a small club or stuffy concert hall. Sweetback is in your face and loud! Their album is a high speed chase or a late night after party, but mostly a soundtrack to a damn good time. In many ways they are kind of instrumental band most people would want to hear, especially in the drum and bass department. As a rhythm section they serve one purpose, groove, by means of actually keeping the same groove they start with throughout each song.

You see, in jazz this is often a difficult concept because the bass players and, especially, drummers are known for constantly changing the groove before the average listener has a chance to absorb the music, much less dance! As a bass player who loves jazz, I know that one of the greatest elements about live jazz is the spontaneous interaction and unpredictability that jazz listeners and jazz musicians love, but this album is not aimed at jazz fans. It’s aimed at everyone who loves music that grooves.