Brian Landrus: The Low End Theory

Daniel Lehner By

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That’s always the biggest part of writing, figuring out what the forces are —Brian Landrus
Specialists don't usually have the luxury of controlling much of their destiny. For a low woodwind expert like Brian Landrus, it would be of little surprise to anyone to find that, though he'd have the freedom to experiment with sounds and timbres for his own records, he would be little more than a hired gun for his sideperson work. Fortunately, Landrus's conviction as an artist, as well as technical skill as a multi-reedist, has given him the leeway to put a signature stamp on whatever he's participated in. He recalled a particular instance where he pushed through an idea for Grammy-award winning bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding's band.

"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."
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