Monumental in creative ambition, imaginative scope, and artistic achievement – not to mention sheer scale – Generations is the breathtaking debut of the Brian Landrus Orchestra, a 25-piece all-star ensemble stocked with a stunning array of the most inventive musicians in modern music. These adventurous virtuosos have congregated to realize the extraordinary, sweeping music of composer, baritone saxophonist and low woodwind master Brian Landrus, whose work combines a lifetime’s worth of wide-ranging listening and playing into an arrestingly bold, radiant and singular vision.
Far from a standard big band project and unlike any orchestral jazz ensemble that’s come before it, the Brian Landrus Orchestra incorporates inspiration from classical music, hip-hop, soul, funk, jazz, reggae and world music – with “inspiration” being the key word. In Landrus’ inventive hands these diverse genres are deconstructed and absorbed, emerging in startling and unrecognizable ways to conjure a dramatic and thrilling sonic landscape.
The title Generations carries multiple meanings for Landrus – including influences that span centuries from Bach to Ellington to Motown to Led Zeppelin to J Dilla; the family members that inspired Landrus and his music, from his father to his children; and the generations of musicians who’ve come together to breathe life into these deeply personal compositions. The drum chair alone features a four-decade difference in age, from the legendary Billy Hart to rising star drummer Justin Brown.
The awe-inspiring ensemble also features Jamie Baum, Tom Christensen, Darryl Harper, Michael Rabinowitz, Alden Banta and Landrus himself on woodwinds; Debbie Schmidt, Ralph Alessi, Igmar Thomas, Alan Ferber and Marcus Rojas on brass; harpist Brandee Younger and a string section featuring Sara Caswell, Mark Feldman, Joyce Hammann, Meg Okura, Lois Martin, Nora Krohn, Jody Redhage and Maria Jeffers; vibraphonist Joe Locke; and bassists Jay Anderson and Lonnie Plaxico. The Orchestra is conducted by bandleader JC Sanford, who has also held the baton for the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble and the Alice Coltrane Orchestra. Landrus co-produced the album with fellow composers Robert Livingston Aldridge and Frank Carlberg.
Landrus comes to the project with a wealth of experience both as a leader and as a performer with some of the world’s most distinctive artists from a variety of genres: he’s toured the world in superstar Esperanza Spalding’s band and played in Ryan Truesdell’s prize-winning Gil Evans Project as well as working with the likes of Bob Brookmeyer, Rufus Reid, Danilo Perez, Frank Kimbrough, Gary Smulyan, Maria Schneider, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Martha Reeves, George Garzone, Bob Moses, Louis Nash, Nicholas Urie, Jerry Bergonzi, Ayn Inserto, Alan Ferber, Uri Caine and Ralph Alessi, among others.
Generations is the culmination of a long-held dream for Landrus, whose previous releases – both with his Quartet and the aptly-named Kaleidoscope – were vibrant but necessarily scaled-down interpretations of the saxophonist’s formidable ambitions. “I’ve had these colors in my head for as far back as I can remember,” he says. “I would always have to strip down what I was hearing into its raw form to use what I had available to me.”
A full-scale orchestra project began to seem more within reach once Landrus, who holds two master’s degrees (in jazz composition and jazz saxophone) from New England Conservatory, entered a PhD program in classical composition at Rutgers University. Studying the scores of the world’s greatest composers, he was compelled to allow his vision free rein, leading to the multi-hued, densely inventive music of Generations. Of course, such a mammoth undertaking is easier to fantasize than to achieve, but a combination of passion, risk-taking and determination allowed Landrus to bring the orchestra to fruition.
Landrus’ compositions incorporate his encyclopedic influences in ground-breaking, original fashion. The merger of hip-hop and jazz for instance, has become a common one; but you’ll hear no easily identifiable grooves or beats in Landrus’ music. Instead, the composer spent years transcribing dozens of hip-hop tracks, with an especial concentration on the work of pioneering producer J Dilla, and then parceled those rhythms into the strings. The result is an unconventional but invitingly complex weave of sounds and textures that converge in deft, surprising forms.
“Growing up listening to Motown and hip-hop and everything else that I loved and played with, those influences were going to creep in regardless of what I did,” Landrus says. “I just had to try to put them together as well as I could and try to imagine how it could all work. It’s a puzzle to get it to fit together properly, but it gives the music a different color that I’ve never heard before, familiar but new.”
The centerpiece of the album, and its launching-off point, is the “Jeru Concerto,” a four-movement feature for the composer’s baritone named for and inspired by his son Jeru – the namesake of bari master Gerry “Jeru” Mulligan and not yet born when Landrus began writing the piece. Propelled by the throaty churn of the orchestra’s low voices, the first movement envelops Landrus’ sinuous lines in lushly wafting strings and buoyant percussion; a solo turn for the leader initiates the gentle second movement, while the third mingles tension and tenderness, perhaps an illustration of the nervous anticipation that ushers any newborn into the world. The final movement, penned after Jeru’s birth, explodes with an infectious joy unable to contain a father’s pride.
Landrus’ family is also at the core of several other pieces. His daughter lends her name to “Ruby,” who recognized her inquisitive spirit in the music as he was writing it. The haunting “Every Time I Dream” depicts a love that proved elusive for years until finally becoming embodied. Landrus pays tribute to his father with “The Warrior,” which depicts not a ferocious fighter but a man of gentle strength and stoic perseverance.
“Orchids” began as a dream, an atmosphere evocatively suggested by the combination of Brandee Younger’s harp and Joe Locke’s vibes. The love story gradually builds to an ecstatic crescendo, but ends on an ambiguous note – like many dreams and, sadly, many romances. “Arrow in the Night,” its title taken from a Buddhist saying regarding evil people who lurk in the shadows, came to Landrus fully formed, its mesmerizing, slow surges like broad, intense brush strokes. “Human Nature” evolves from the solitary to the communal, maintaining a spiritual urgency throughout as the unsung title lyrics are passed from instrument to instrument. The rhythmic intricacy of “Arise” was inspired by a dance collaboration and imbibes elements from Electronic Dance Music (EDM) and Latin jazz, though as always in transformative ways.