Brian Landrus: The Low End Theory
“ That’s always the biggest part of writing, figuring out what the forces are Brian Landrus ”
"With Espie, I called her up. I said, 'Espie, I'm telling you, I think bass clarinet would be the shit on this track. And she said, 'Well, I'm not really sure...' and I said, 'Let me just play it for you' and I played it over the phone and she flipped! She was just like, 'Oh, hell yeah! Bring that everywhere!' and to do it for different tunes. So I was changing the parts and everything."
For Landrus, this is a privilege he has earned from being a consistently razor-sharp sideperson, on almost every reed instrument imaginable, for both jazz luminaries (Landrus being heard most recently with Ryan Truesdell's Gil Evans Centennial Project) and legendary soul and R&B acts like The Four Tops and The Drifters. What's essential for him is the element of change, dynamics, freedom and honesty in music as opposed to being a trained expert, though the grind eventually prepared him for better things.
"I remember when I first started doing Broadway and I thought that would be a great career because of my doubling chops, but that was some boring shit. I just couldn't hang with playing the same stuff every day. I have piccolo chops, I have flute chops, I have bassoon chops, I have oboe chops, I have all this shit that I've worked years on to develop and what I realized is that it wasn't a waste in any way, those were all preparing me for bass flute, alto flute, all those instruments I really do care about. That's all been more important for me than being able to tear up the piccolo part in some score. But again, for the record with Truesdell, I have to play some piccolo and I played some mean piccolo on that! You have to get your doubling chops absolutely solid and then you can do your own thing out of it.
"I love the sounds of these instruments and the stuff that I play like contralto clarinet, bass flute, alto flute, etc., the more I've developed my voice on those, the more the sideman work has come. I was just telling this to a colleague yesterday, I think people are hiring me because they want what I do, whereas there were many years where I was just trying to get skills together to fulfill the needs that I thought were necessary. But in actuality, you just make yourself strong in whatever you do and people will want that."
In Landrus's hometown of Reno, Nevada, doubling was a patchwork element amongst the heavy show culture that dominated The Biggest Little City for decades. "Reno is an interesting place," said Landrus. "Comparatively to other cities with a similar population, it had a large amount of musicians living there, which was because of the amount of show work that was there in the 50's, 60's, 70's and 80's. That ended a bit kind of in the mid '90's. So there's a lot of guys that grew up on the East Coast who moved out there to play shows. There's was a point in time when there were about 10 big bands that would have a show every day."
Though exposed to the show world, Landrus originally gravitated towards groove music as a young person, a preference that would stay constant up to the present day. "I grew up with some of that music a little bit, but when I was a kid was very much into people like Hall and Oates, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, etc. I've always gravitated towards groove-based music. I love jazz, don't get me wrong, but just rhythmically, it does more for me."
Nevertheless, jazz (and subsequently playing a reed instrument) entered his arena fairly early. "When I was 12, I started playing and my teacher gave me my first jazz recording, which was a Don Menza big band recording, of all things and Don was killin' it. He was a friend of my teacher and I loved that recording and then a few weeks later, I got into Bird and kind of went from there."
Even though the high-volume show culture was starting to wane as Landrus was coming up, the emphasis on doubling on other reed instruments was still ever- present. "I was initially a tenor player," he explained. "I don't really consider myself a tenor player anymore, though I do still play it on occasion. I think coming up in Reno, I was playing flute and clarinet in high school just because everyone was telling me that since that scene was such a show world, you had to be a badass doubler."
Until that point, baritone saxophone, which is Landrus's most front-and- center horn choice amongst his many skills, hadn't even been a serious and/or viable option. The low reed instrument wasn't on the radar for Landrus's creative personality. Though he had played it before, there was a great deal of resistance early on, literally and figuratively speaking.
"The first time I ever played baritone, I was about 15 or 16," he recalled. "It was an old Conn from about 1914 and it was an old-ass horn; it wasn't even keyed all the way up. The first time I ever honked on it, I just kind of turned to my friends and started laughing, because I sounded horrible, but I had so much fun and kept going. My friends were all just saying, 'Could you stop? Please!' So I had jokingly said, 'Guys, I think I'm supposed to be a baritone player' and everyone kind of laughed, but I had also said, 'No...really." It wasn't my horn at the time so I gave it back to my friend and didn't play it for about three years.
"Baritone takes years for someone to get the facility to be able to play it and I was consciously fighting being a baritone player because I was coming at it from a work perspective, thinking it would be better for me a tenor player. Improvising was such a big part of my life and I just wanted to be able to do what I wanted on whatever horn I was playing on. I figured if I was playing baritone, I wouldn't be improvising. I started playing baritone sax for Motown bands, because it was always easy for them to find tenor players and then they would find out that I played baritone and they started using me on that. Then I think it just snowballed, just playing more and more baritone."
It wasn't until his time at New England Conservatory in Boston, with the input of one of his mentors, the legendary valve trombonist and arranger Bob Brookmeyer, that he was encouraged to make the baritone sax a part of his voice. "When I went to NEC, Brookemyer was kind of the one who was really flipping out about the baritone. He just said, 'Man, you gotta run with this thing. You gotta unique sound on this thing, so don't fight it' and he was right. I really was fighting it because at the time, the guys I was listening to primarily were tenor players. So I was playing a lot of gigs just applying what I know on tenor to bari.
"So I think when I really started focusing on it was at after NEC and making my own thing happen with my own groups. I could focus on the baritone and not just be a big band player or just laying down the funk lines, as much as I love doing all of that. Developing my voice on it was just a natural voice in all that."
Post-college, along with his side work, Landrus was putting in work as a bandleader in the Boston area. The gigs he assembled under his own name were full of some of the best people he could hire and with good reason. Not only would they provide some of his personnel for his later career as a recorded bandleader, but it was also an invaluable teaching experience.
"I know we've all heard the advice that in your band you always want to be the weakest link, but it works! I've always surrounded myself with players that are a hell of a lot better than I am. My first weekly gig I did that and I was paying everybody else; I wasn't getting paid at all. It was because they were the university guys and they were the baddest guys in town. I didn't really need to get paid because I was getting paid in learning, having them teach my ass every night. I feel like in this world and in our business, you have to go all out and hire people above your playing level."
Landrus's album Forward (Cadence Jazz, 2009) was just that sort of assembly. The record was fairly representative of both Landrus's peers and mentors, the former being players like trumpeter Jason Palmer and the latter being players like highly influential saxophonist and teacher George Garzone. The mixture of playing styles and experiences provided a diverse sonic palette, but the personnel choices in full (which also included long-standing collaborator Michael Cain and drummer percussionist Bob Moses) also served a very crucial function in keeping a sense of checks and balances for personalities and functionality.
He explained, "When you're talking about personnel with that record, I feel there's a balance. Back then, I was very careful with that, as far as attitudes, egos, things like that. Garzone was definitely the equalizer; he's one of my favorite people in the world. With Bob Moses, I'll be perfectly honest: a lot of people are scared of him. He can be a bit of a loose cannon. So a lot of the planning was getting people that would even each other out. Moses is intense but he's a genius! I got Mike to be in the record and Mike is in Jack DeJohnette's band, who's Bob's favorite drummer. So they're really all in it together. Having someone else to keep everyone in check helps." Palmer was also key in creating a balance. "Jason's sound and his playing are so completely opposite of mine and it works so well. It was the first time I had gotten players together who were so established."
Cain would go on to be a frequent collaborator with Landrus. He spoke extremely highly of Cain's strength of character both musically and personally. For Landrus, Cain ended up being someone to go to for insight even beyond the keyboard. "Mike was a teacher of mine at NEC and he feels like a brother to me. Musically he was right there with me on everything and he constantly teaches me things. His ears are amazing. Being in the studio with Mike was shocking; he was hearing things and picking up on all these frequencies. He was one of those guys who I grew up listening to and first it's kind of shocking because then he's hiring me to play!
"There was a bunch of music that he produced with me and he came up with these amazing ideas. We'd be working on some stuff and I'd send him the charts and he'd send it back with one chord different and it'd be amazing. Unfortunately he lives in Canada, because he has a great teaching job out there and I have to have someone who lives in town who can do the hits with us."
Capsule (BlueLand Records, 2011) was a remarkably different sound than his previous and later jaunts, though it fit right into his wheelhouse as far as taste and influence. Texturally and artistically, the record leaves few stones unturned in the exploration of different groove-oriented music, jumping from reggae to R&B to drum n' bass. It was also a record that provided some challenges for Landrus as far as stating a purpose to his audience.
"It was hard to get into words exactly what I wanted the band to do. I've used sequencing programs before and I wrote a lot of that record using Reason. I made drum beats for everything and it was very much in the electronic world. I love groove; I've always loved that music and I always come back to it. I love the way it makes me feel and how audiences respond to it. I really wanted to go back to my roots with that record. It's hard when you make a record where people can't attach something to it as far as trying to market it, because there's some rock, but there's also some RnB, some reggae. There's even a drum n' bass type thing, so it's hard to categorize what it is, but I just embrace that now."
Capsule appears one place ahead of Landrus's Traverse, even though it was recorded earlier. Landrus was issued a few pleas not to release the record at all, via the advice of some of his confidants. "I had actually waited to release that record for about a year and half since I even had the copies in my hand, because I had sent it to some people in the business and a couple guys said, 'This is going to ruin your career. You have this trajectory going on and because this is more electronic, people aren't going to listen to your music again.' So I waited and recorded a straight-ahead record which was 'Traverse,' before releasing 'Capsule,' which was bullshit anyway, because that record did great!"
The record was also helped greatly by its musicians, whose experience allowed everything to operate both on the level that Landrus expected and in many new ways as well. A crucial component in creating all the different groove templates was drummer Rudy Royston. Landrus recalled, "I was playing with Mike [Cain]'s band and he was telling about this drummer I needed to hear. We had done this hit and right from the downbeat, I was like, 'What?!' And it was a lot of the stuff I loved, the real groove-oriented but had an odd-meter thing, too. He was just hard-hitting from the start. For a lot of jazz drummers I've encountered, their sounds are very thin to me, so if we're going for a James Brown vibe, it won't be there. Rudy, though, clearly grew up listening to a lot hip-hop and all sorts of music, so as premier as his swing is, his pocket in any genre I've heard him play is amazing."
The record was also aided in part by guitarist Nir Felder, who Landrus met in a similar way. "I met Nir when I was in living in Boston. I was playing with a great bassist named Aryeh Kobrinsky and he was going to NEC with me. It was the same thing; he kept telling me about this guitarist, being like, 'Oh man, you gotta hear this guy!' So we came to do this really crazy gig; it was almost like a circus, naked people wrestling inside a balloon, things like that. And even just the first few notes he played in the rehearsal, I just knew this guy was amazing. We hit it off personally as well and we just became friends. I've always loved the specific sound of guitar that he uses.
"There are a few guys you hear and you know that they're going to be a legend. He plays with all heart and he got to that level at a really young age where his technique was secondary to his expression. So I told him that night, and that was almost 10 years ago, that he was going to be in my band. And I'm sure that everybody hears that all the time and it's whatever, but now we've been playing together for years."
Felder has since provided an important sound addition to much of Landrus's music since. "When I was writing the music, I was hearing Nir. There's a lot of great guitar players that I've been fortunate to have worked with, but he was the voice I'd been hearing while writing this music. Also, the sound of baritone or bass clarinet with guitar almost creates a separate instrument. It's octaves and it gives a strength to the melody. It's grounded, but it also has an airy quality too. And with Nir, there's an edge to his sound, but it's not aggressive."
Traverse (Blue Land Records, 2010), in the context of Landrus's oeuvre, is the most familiar in terms of format. Stripped of the shifting personnel and the radical differences in styles, Traverse stands as a strong and very personal classic quartet record. Landrus explained that this was a deliberate move, done initially out of a (later revealed to be naive) concern, but also as an affirmation of his experience.
"Traverse came about because Mike and I had been talking about doing it. I had mentioned the idea about doing a straight-ahead quartet record, but we'll keep it fresh obviously. I wanted to put out a record with a classic format. That's our version of a string quartet. It's a staple. When I was writing that record, it just felt like the right thing to do. There was actually a point when I was going to have other horns on the record, but I just ended up not using them, because the music didn't need it. Every time I tried to do more stuff with the music, the music didn't need it.
"I had already done Capsule and all these people were telling me not to do it (which ended up being a life lesson) but at the time it scared the shit out of me. I knew I was going to release that record, but I wanted to do one that would establish me as a jazz player. I'm a jazz musician; I'm not just one of these musicians that only does funky shit. It was a preemptive strike against critics [laughs]"
One key ways that Landrus and Cain had kept the music fresh was the choice to do a few of the tracks as a duo, whereas they were initially written for quartet. "That was actually Mike's idea," said Landrus. "When we played them through as a quartet, it just didn't feel as good, but at Mike's suggestion, they just sounded perfect as a duet." Landrus and Cain were able to bring on another future long-standing collaborator in the for the Traverse session: legendary bassist Lonnie Plaxico. "I had actually first listened to him when I was 18 on the last couple [Art Blakey] Jazz Messenger records. When we were putting together the album, Mike and I were talking about guys for the record and I knew he knew Lonnie and I just threw his name out there. We talked to him and he was totally into it and from then on, it's my first call guy. Anything he can do, he's going to be on.
"He brings a lot of wisdom from really growing up in the mentoring world, which almost doesn't exist anymore, and in the legendary mentor band. When you play with him, he brings this organic energy that you can only really get from somebody like him. Obviously, tone is a really big thing with me and his tone is huge! He's an amazing person, too; he's a sweetheart. I feel really fortunate to play with all these guys."
The record is also graced by the presence of drum legend Billy Hart. "Billy is amazing. His touch is so unique and it was important to have him on that record. It's funny, I could have said that I wouldn't have him on the a funk record, but I'd heard him on Herbie Hancock's 'Fat Albert Rotunda' a couple years ago and Billy is absolutely smokin' on these funky-ass grooves! He actually played our CD release for Mirage and killed it. But if I'm doing a session with Billy, I want it to swing."
Mirage (BlueLand Records, 2013), he latest release from the Kaleidoscope band (the same moniker that the band from Capsule carried) has widened Landrus's vision to incorporate strings into his compositional repertoire. The record gives a thoroughly cinematic edge to Landrus's compositional style, as well as gleaning from the string-soaked sounds of classic Motown and other R&B singers like Donny Hathaway and Bobby Caldwell. However, like any major endeavor, it took a good deal of planning and organizational determination.
He again took some mentored inspiration from Bob Brookmeyer. "I was talking to Bob about doing this record and he passed away maybe about two months after we'd spoken. I told him I wanted to do a nonet and I had already decided on the number but kept going back from doing strings to horns. I knew that horns might have been easier because it's New York City. It would be a lot easier than finding a violist or a cellist that could improvise. But he encouraged me to do what I heard.
"I knew when I was planning the session what I wanted, but what I wanted didn't make sense to a lot of people. I talked to a bunch of colleagues and some of them tried to steer me clear of that idea a bit. I thankfully did have some experience writing for strings when I was in Reno. I wrote some stuff in NEC as well. It's what I heard from the get-go. I knew from the get-go it was going to be challenging in getting the right people. I knew that asking a string player to play a kind of skanking reggae groove would be pretty out for them. But at this point, I'm not going to pull any punches. It doesn't help anyone, including myself, to not do what I've been dreaming of. Why sell myself short?"
Though it is far from the only jazz album with a string section (it's not even the only album with baritone sax and strings; Landrus shares that distinction with Gary Smulyan), Mirage is unique in the way it incorporates strings. The string section (including improvisers like cellist Jody Redhage and violinist Mark Feldman), instead of being used as a glaze over the finish product, were true participants in the nonet, as soloists and as part- producers.
"I wanted them to be integral, I didn't want there to be that separation, the kind of things where it's, 'Oh, here's the chorus and hear come the strings.' Though I did that sometimes [laughs]. I did end up doing some cliché things, but they're cliché because they work. But with them, I wanted them to be playing melodic lines, counter lines, things like that. There was one review that said something like it 'avoided the pitfalls of artificial sweeteners' in using strings. It was cool to hear that and it's great because I know I tried to avoid that. I sometimes had Jody doubling with me and doubling with Lonnie. There were also moments where it would break down to just strings and then would go back to the ensemble, and that was kind of a way of avoiding the cliche. We made it so that we can't do that music without the strings.
The glue that held Mirage together lay in Ryan Truesdell, who Landrus brought on to alleviate some potential stress and overworking that Landrus was anticipating. "When I was doing this music, I talked to him about helping me out with conducting, because I didn't want to have to play, conduct, produce, etc. all at the same time. A lot of the music is cued with open sections. I called him up asking if he would work with me on it.
"He learned the music super well. When I gave him the charts, he was a bit nervous because I told him I'd be relying on him to give a lot of the cueing, with different solo sections, and the main thing I was worried about was him getting the energy while it was peaking. There's nothing more uncomfortable to me as a soloist to have the energy peak and then not go onto the next section. I wanted to him to feel that if the energy was in danger of going down to move onto the next section. So he knew it was a big deal. So I was in my small booth, by myself, and he really whipped it into shape. Then after we got done, I told him I had to give him producer credit. He went above and beyond what he got himself into. He enabled me artistically because that day I was a player and that's what I was able to focus on. I wouldn't have trusted anyone else."
Landrus has consistently tried to work in a new manner for all of his records. Every release thus far has had a new vibe and a new means of creating great music. "On this record, unlike the ones where there's a real different vibe and cast on each track, I just wanted a fluidity and to challenge myself as a composer to work with the same instrumentation throughout, with different grooves, different pockets."
For Landrus, the music has always been based on what strikes him as a listener and as a performer. When it comes to fleshing it all out, however, there is another, deeper process at work. He verbalized it in a piece of advice by Brookmeyer, which alludes to all future listeners as to what Landrus's next step might be. "He talked a lot about music coming out of 'the forces' and by that he meant instrumentation. That's always the biggest part of writing, figuring out what the forces are."
Brian Landrus, Mirage (BlueLand Records, 2013)
Ryan Truesdell, Gil Evans Centennial Project (ArtistShare, 2012)
Brian Landrus, Capsule (BlueLand Records, 2011)
Brian Landrus, Traverse (Blue Land Records, 2010)
Nicholas Urie Large Ensemble, Excerpts From an Online Dating Service (Red Piano Records, 2009)
The Ayn Inserto Jazz Orchestra with George Garzone, Muse (Creative Nation Music, 2009)
Brian Landrus, Forward (Cadence Jazz, 2009)