|photo by Nick Bewsey|
friends call him Big B and for a low woodwind player, saxophonist Brian Landrus,
life this summer seems to be supersized. When we met on July 2, he was in
between gigs as a member of Esperanza Spalding’s tour band – he was
preparing to jet off the next day to Brussels to rejoin the group in
Europe (33 gigs with Spalding had been scheduled for May, June and July
in the US and abroad.) Married and living in Brooklyn, he had a few days off to
spend time with his family and I had arranged through Brian’s publicist to
meet him along with Ryan Truesdell, a close friend and collaborator on Brian’s
new album, Mirage. An
exceptional jazz record, Mirage is a
musical testimony to connections, a fulfillment of ideas founded at New England
Conservatory as a student and life on the road as a musician since then.
Produced live in the studio, Landrus’ vision is brought vividly to life through
the skill of his friend, Ryan, and players on the date like drummer Rudy
Royston, bassist Lonnie Plaxico and guitarist Nir Felder.
We met in
the early afternoon at Joe Papp’s Public Theater in the East Village prior to
the band’s sound check. Brian was running behind, but Ryan was ready to go, so
I started by asking him about his last 12 months since he released Centennial:
Newly Discovered Works Of Gil Evans, a
project Ryan produced and conducted after gaining access to Gil’s private files
through the Evans family – all of it meticulously researched, assembled and
recorded with 35 musicians and vocalists.
year was your big year, Ryan. Your album was released to great acclaim, made
many top 10 music lists and was nominated for a Grammy. What was that like for
RT: It’s hard to say! It’s almost like I don’t remember much
of it since it was such a whirlwind…from the research, to the copying, getting
the band together, to the funding through ArtistShare. I did all that by
myself. Then came the gigs at the Jazz Standard, then the Umbria Jazz Festival,
one of the biggest festivals in Europe, and then the Newport Jazz Festival,
then the Grammys -- all of this happened within a few months. Plus, all the
nice things journalists have written. It’s been a lot of fun. Now I’m back on
my feet and considering what’s next.
have been very fulfilling…to hit it big right out of the gate.
RT: Well, you’re making it a much bigger deal than it is! It’s
not like my name is up there in lights! (laughs)
But it has been fun. You know what I love about working with Gil’s music? It’s
not my music. It’s so great by itself! It’s such a thrill to present his music
and put together the musicians to play it. Because when you write your own
music, you’re so invested in it personally; the ego is involved and that’s not
the case here. Gil’s music is great by itself. It’s great to be up there to
present it. No one was playing it and then to have the opportunity to explore
and perform it, to hire that great band – all anybody had was the records he
made. He never had many live gigs. And so it’s great to be able to turn people
on to Gil’s music who may have never heard it before. One of my favorite things
is that I invite students to the shows to sell the CDs for me, and the first
year a guy came up to me and said ‘I’ve never heard of [bandleader] Claude
Thornhill (Evans wrote arrangements for his orchestra;) I’ve never heard this
music before and this stuff changed my life.’ To hear someone say that! That
alone is worth it -- to be able to turn one more person on to the music.
did you meet Brian?
RT: We met at NEC. I think he is officially the first person I
met at orientation on the first day. (Brian
walks in) And there he is. He approaches…almost seven feet tall! (laughs)
for introductions; Brian and Ryan catch up about family and schedules. Brian
tells me that his family is visiting from his childhood home in Reno, Nevada to
attend the CD release party this night. Politely, Brian asks if he’s
interrupted our conversation and offers to come back later. Since the whole
point of the interview was to speak with Brian and Ryan together, I asked him
to stay and jump right in.
BL: (Picking up how they met each other…) yes, we met at the
audition on the first day. You [Ryan] came in a suit, looking all slick, I came
in looking like a bum.
RT: I remember hating it. I had a horrible audition!
BL: Yeah, you were terrified. I was terrified too. And
then we talked and found out both of us were going for jazz comp.
RT: [Bob] Brookmeyer was there. I remember hearing all
these people auditioning before me, all of them being put through the wringer,
and when I went in, they stopped me after four minutes. Bob sat stone-faced.
And Bob says, ‘I got a call about you.” Even though I was in, all I wanted was
to go home (laughs.)
BL: Mine was right after yours. After the first tune I
played, I was playing a ballad – Body and Soul – and Bob gets up and walks to
the other side of the room and opens a wrapped sandwich, making all sorts of
noise. I was sure I bombed, but Bob turned around and said, ‘I knew I wanted
you here after the first three notes.’
educator and musician Bob Brookmeyer was evidently hugely influential on Brian
and Ryan as they embarked on their careers. At NEC, Brookmeyer encouraged
Landrus to play the baritone sax after hearing Brian play the horn, comparing
his style to none other than Gerry Mulligan. After that, Landrus concentrated
on all the low reed instruments. Brookmeyer passed away in 2011.
Brian, you’re in the middle of your tour with Esperanza, while you’re prepping
your CD for release and getting the band together for the show tonight. And
Ryan, with all your work and performing with your Centennial project, well, you
both seem like very disciplined and organized individuals.
BL: Ryan is incredibly organized. This guy, he always had
his shit together in school. When I got to NEC, I had already worked with the
Motown bands, but Ryan was established and working with Maria [Schneider.] He
has already paid his dues. And so you have to be organized to do any of this.
RT: Yes, just coordinating four people is a skill and you
have to have it. I learned it throughout school and working with Bob, who was
in upstate New York at times, being his ear on the ground. It basically
separates out who’s successful…if they have a band under their name.
BL: With this
record, Mirage, I needed Ryan’s help
to keep it all together. As organized as I am with my own stuff, I knew when I
was writing the music, it’s hard to know what needs to be cued on the open
sections and who plays next. And Ryan was right there at the studio giving
instruction and direction. Actually, it was the most fun I’ve had recording a
Truesdell insists on a supporting role, deferring to Landrus’s vision to
incorporate strings into the mix, but the saxophonist is the first to admit
that Truesdell’s conducting of the string arrangements wouldn’t have been the
same with anyone else.
|Ryan Truesdell & Brian Landrus at Joe's Pub, July, 2013 - photo by Nick Bewsey|
of production, was everyone there at the same time? No overdubs?
RT: Everyone was there. People were always in eyesight of
one another. The drums were in a booth. It was live, strings and all.
when did the music on Mirage come together? Last year, you were in the Ryan’s
band playing the music on Centennial. Were you writing then, or afterwards?
BL: I started writing Mirage
four months before we went into the studio. I had the idea, but it seemed like
such an undertaking. But I heard it in my head and knew that I had to record
commented on how large the strings sound on Mirage; four players that have a potent
collective voice and ask how that’s achieved.
RT: Yes, it’s part of arranging. Gil Evans did that on the
Miles Davis dates. I remember getting together with Brian about a month before
the recording and looking at the charts, wondering ‘I don’t know how this is
going to work.’ I had a lot of question marks on the sheet music and put my
trust in Brian, but once we started playing and recording, he was right – it
are so many great songs on Mirage. I
love Don’t Close Your Eyes – the strings give it a nice emphasis. (Ryan recalls the melodic line and sings it)
RT: Yeah, that one. That’s another one where I wasn’t sure
how it was going to work but it did. I love it.
BL: The strings kicked my ass on this record. I was asked
in another interview if I had any training with strings and I had to say that I
didn’t. Then I recalled I had one class on Beethoven’s string quartets. I guess
that helped! Prior to this record, I was studying some orchestral scores and I
noticed there was a wideness in the writing that I liked, and I tried to put that
in, where the cellos were way low and other instruments higher, just so it gets
that fuller vibe to sound like more players.
RT: What I like about Brian’s writing, what it reminds me
of -- is what pop music is getting into now -- that retro sound, like the music of
Justin Timberlake and Pharrell. And even the Motown influence. The sounds of
the 60s and 70’s is what Brian’s writing reminds me of.
reminds me of those old CTI records by Grover Washington, Jr. or Bob James (Ryan voices agreement.) The fat keyboard
sound and harmonics are really cool, yet your music is utterly original.
BL: There’s an influence there. I love Motown. Donny
Hathaway. That’s such great music. And I’ve been playing since I was twelve. 22
how you write your music. What’s the process?
BL: Yeah, well, I write lyrics to all my tunes. That’s how
it starts out.
RT (surprised): You do? Have you always done that?
BL: Depends on the project, but yes. I usually don’t tell
people that because then they want to see them. At that point it’s too
personal. I won’t show them to anybody. Not even my family. It taps into a
deeper thing for me. There’s real meaning to me than just notes and music,
figuring out how to convey what I’ve written in words. It’s very personal. I’m
surprised I never told you, Ryan.
RT: You’re such a deep person! I never knew this! Now I
have to look at all your titles again (laughs.)
about Sammy, the second track on the album.
Sammy was my cat for 22 years. He would always sit in my
lap, I was writing most of my music with him right there. Writing music,
transcribing music. He was with me throughout so much of my life. And I knew he
was getting to the end. So I wrote that song about him after I made the call to
put him down. We’d been through a lot together over the years.
how do you practice as a composer. Is there such a thing?
RT: Well, there are two answers. One, I study a lot.
Scores and orchestral pieces. And then I write. Bob Brookmeyer always pushed me
to write, even going so far to call me to remind me to write. You have to get
your ideas out. The other thing that Bob taught me was how to listen. I go to
shows and try to really listen. He trained me to listen and if I didn’t like
something, to ask myself what didn’t I like about this or that. That’s really
valuable advice to me.
BL: With writing, obviously, you have to develop a certain
amount of skill. As far as Mirage
goes, I put everything into it that I’ve thought about since my last record.
The ideas in my head, it’s like a savings account that I empty onto paper and
into writing. I have to get it out. I’m project oriented and I put all my
effort into it. I have a timeline and, this is something Bob taught me, to set
the recording date first before writing anything and work towards that.
RT: That’s great. Have you written anything since Mirage?
BL: I have a couple of things down, but not sure what I
want to do, yet. I want to do a trio date – it’s a lot easier to tour with a
trio – but maybe another one of these [like Mirage.]
talked about Brian connecting with Billy Hart who played drums on Brian’s
earlier quartet record, Traverse
(2011) and bassist Lonnie Plaxico, a current band member who played on Mirage and Traverse. How does a group like that come together? In this case, from pianist
Michael Cain who knew Hart and told Brian to ask him. In jazz, reputations and
friendships go far and bring unique collaborators together. It’s all about
connections. The impressive Mirage
session drummer, Rudy Royston, couldn’t make the gig on July 2, and Billy Hart
was available to sit in.
you manage your schedule? How do you incorporate your family life into all of
BL: It’s so difficult. Never easy. I’m only here six days.
It’s been tough but necessary. Esperanza is really accommodating to me and she
doesn’t always do that for other band members. I get to do this release gig,
then I’m flying out to Brussels tomorrow.
that tour like?
BL: It’s a show. But it’s a lot of fun. Everyone gets a
chance to show off what they do and I’ve made a lot a lifetime friends with
this group. (Leo Genovese and saxophonist Tia Fuller are members of the band) In every city, we try to get together
after hours to do jam. In Brazil,
we go to this jazz club that Leo knew about, got crazy on the native liquor and
played ‘til 4:30 in the morning. Until the police came and told us we were
|photo by Nick Bewsey - Joe's Pub, July, 2013|
future plans for touring with Mirage? Or for your band, Kaleidoscope?
BL: Nothing’s planned for now. It’s such a large group to
take on the road. I’ve gotten calls and requests to perform Mirage in other places, but that’s hard
to do for one-shot dates. I’m so consumed with Esperanza’s tour right now, so
everything is a little up in the air.
mention how accessible Mirage is as
a jazz project; how strong Brian’s songwriting is. Ryan says that he wakes up
with this music playing in his head. I mention how absorbing the title cut is, essentially
agreeing that having memorable melodies is cool. Head nods all around.
about the Newport Jazz Festival, a little more about Ryan’s Centennial project
and other musicians like Milton Nascimento (who hung out with Brian and the
band on the Spalding tour.) Both musicians talk about working on their next
projects. The guys pick up conversations where they left off months before; an
easygoing rapport that goes back and forth.
seem like such good friends, along with working on each other’s projects --
your connection is tight.
RT: I know! Well, we’ve known each other since, what,
BL: Time is flying!
for people like me, and music fans and listeners, what it means is that there
will be more great music with and by both of you to look forward to.
sees his band showing up for the sound check and needs to attend to that, but
Ryan has one other point to make.
RT: I’ve has a lot of conversations with people about the
value of school. And how important it is. I know some questions whether or not
it’s better to hit the road first. But one of the things I know as I look at
people I’m working with – [singer] Wendy Gilles, Brian, and others that are our
peer group and people we collaborate with – these are friends that I wouldn’t
have met if it wasn’t for school. And I wouldn’t have developed that
relationship otherwise. School gives you that safe place to experiment and try
things out and not be judged. So many people and friend went to and have
graduated from NEC. It’s fun to see these connections out there and making it
it’s all about connections. And you both keep it happening. Thanks so much for speaking
with me, Ryan and Brian.
Labels: Billy Hart, Brian Landrus, Esperanza Spalding, Ryan Truesdell