Review by Matt Cole
Mirage is the 5th CD as a leader from composer/low reedsman Brian Landrus. In addition to Kaleidoscope, which consists of Nir Felder on guitar, Frank Carlberg on Rhodes and piano, Lonnie Plaxico on acoustic and electric bass, and Rudy Royston on drums; Landrus added a string section for this album, consisting of Mark Feldman and Joyce Hammann on violin, Judith Insell on viola, and Jody Redhage on cello, with Ryan Truesdell conducting.
Overall, the music draws from a number of influences, but the main feel is that of a chill funky jazz with gentle and vibrant energy. The strings are used quite effectively, taking the lead at times, adding shimmering layers of sound at others, and occasionally even bringing a late Romantic/Impressionistic feel to the proceedings. Landrus as leader and arranger does a fine job of weaving the quartet in with his own quintet’s melodic lines, musical conversations, and rhythms; the two blend seamlessly to become one seamless unit.
The album opens with “Arrival,” a good choice for a leadoff track. It starts with a bass pedal, with overtones, contrasted with rapid fire string notes, giving a nice mix of dreamy and agitated. As the drums and bass clarinet join the mix, the music takes on a minor feel while drummer Royston creates an odd angular rhythm feel. This segues into a jazzy, proggy, upbeat section with Felder taking the lead on guitar. This part made me think of music by (mostly) Swiss bands No Reduce and the Nils Wolgram Septet, reviewed previously on DooBeeDooBeeDoo. “Arrival” provides a good example of what a group effort this album is, with the various instruments building well together, sharing the lead, and interlocking tightly regardless of which role they are playing or space they are filling.
Track 2, “Sammy,” starts with Landrus’ bass clarinet having a slow, sad conversation with Redhage’s cello, providing an example of how Landrus does a good job at distributing leads between different combinations of instruments, which enhances his sound palette and keeps everyone involved. The piece builds to a head that has hints of a Gypsy feel, with the melody passed among the various instruments in a multi-way call and response. The musical conversation gets more frantic and elaborate, before morphing into a jazzier section, with descending lines and arpeggios. Through it all, the rhythm section of Royston and Plaxico demonstrate a talent for propelling things along energetically without being overly obtrusive, a trait which they maintain for the whole album.
“Don’t Close Your Eyes” comes next, and is the first track on the CD to have an almost Motown-with-strings feel to it, the other one being “Three Words.” In contrast with the latter, which is a fairly straightforward piece which leans toward contemporary jazz (but feels less sterile than a fair amount of the music of that name), “Eyes” has a bit more hybrid feel—with its understated ’70s strings combining with some lyrical jazz. At one point Landrus lays down a bari solo with serious oomph and the band demonstrates what bland smooth jazz would sound like if it actually had some real depth, daring and complexity; the music is gentle and passionate at the same time.
“A New Day” is the first track with less than the full band. It’s a short piece for the string quartet and sounds most of all like something out of the mid- to late Romantic era, with a dash of Impressionism. The other two such pieces (“Reach” and “Kismet”) are short low reed solo pieces which showcase Landrus’ excellent musicianship and tone; the former is played on the bass clarinet and consists of a series of arpeggios which become more melodic and have more motion over time, with each phrase being a little more detailed. “Kismet” is a showcase for the wonderful bass saxophone, starting with an atmosphere of jazzy noir, but a little more open and upbeat then your usual Sam Spade story. As the song progresses, the lines grow more bluesy and soulful, and there’s even a hint of baroque in them.
“The Thousands,” after “A New Day,” starts by showcasing bassist Plaxico, who mixes some rich sustained notes with some rapid fire runs, making excellent use of space as well. When the band comes in, the sound made me think of hard bop in odd meter, first in unison, then with harmonies and interesting comping underneath. Landrus then plays a bari solo replete with smooth runs and interesting phrases as the rest of the band provides an excellent example of its ability to slowly and patiently build and develop, taking the accompaniment from spare to intense. When the head returns, the strings provide a halo of shimmering enhancement.
Next up, “Someday” starts with another combination of instruments, with Carlberg’s piano playing a line with hints of Irish music along with the violins; and also features a nimble bass clarinet solo in which Landrus has a particularly lovely tone—there are few sounds as rich and beautiful as that made by a bass clarinet in the hands of a skilled player.
After the aforementioned “Reach” comes the title track, “Mirage.” The string quartet begins, with a similar feel to their earlier showcase piece, but this time the rest of the band comes in, playing gentle slow jazz with a sad minor melody in the bari and some high layers from the strings. “Mirage” also highlights guitarist Felder, who plays an undistorted intricate solo over a subtly funky melodic bass. This piece also provides another example of how Landrus spreads things around, as the strings come back into the lead at the end, but this time with the rhythm section underneath, with the bari taking over right at the end. Never do these trades and transitions sound awkward; the band is extremely tight.
“I’ve Been Told” provides a nice surprise—it starts with an angular, out-sounding solo guitar, when the band comes in, reveals itself to be a part of a reggae beat. Landrus shares the lead with the strings on this one, and plays a soulful and busy bass clarinet solo.
The aforementioned “Three Words” is next, and after that comes “Jade,” with a strong, almost wistful melody over a funky popping bass. In this piece, we are treated to a violin solo (I’m guessing by Feldman) with interesting lines played with technical proficiency and a rich tone. Then comes “Kismet,” a strong solo denouement to a richly-layered album.
I found Mirage to be an enjoyable CD. While it certainly wasn’t as out or deliciously dissonant as some of the other CD’s and shows I’ve reviewed for DooBeeDooBeeDoo, it’s a creative, well-executed effort which relies on subtlety, tight playing, well-written and arranged songs leading to creative improvisations, and thoughtful interaction between the musicians to make its impact. Landrus does a fine job melding his quintet with the string quartet and spreading the load among his talented musicians, and it makes for an album well worth checking out.