Brian Landrus: The Low End Theory
"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.