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."

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."
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