JAZZ IN SPACE: August 2013

Monday, August 5, 2013


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photo by Nick Bewsey
His 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.

Last 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 you?

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.

It must 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.

So how 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)

We pause 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.’

Composer, 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.

So, 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 record.

Ryan 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
In terms 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.

Brian, 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 it.

I 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 all works.

There 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.

It 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 years now.

Tell me 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.)

Tell me 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.

Ryan, 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.]

We 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.

How do you manage your schedule? How do you incorporate your family life into all of this?

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.

What is 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 done.

photo by Nick Bewsey - Joe's Pub, July, 2013
Are there 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.

I 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.

We talk 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.

You two 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, 2004?

BL: Time is flying!

Well, 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.

Brian 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 happen.

Yes, it’s all about connections. And you both keep it happening. Thanks so much for speaking with me, Ryan and Brian.

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Creole Soul (Culture Shock Music) flaunts a polished groove, heavy on the beats and the bass that dares you to try to sit still. Trinidad-born trumpeter Etienne Charles is the man behind the sound, a uniquely fired up combination of calypso and modern jazz that reflects his musical upbringing.

For this fourth solo effort on his own label, Charles assembles a dynamic core of peers and smoothly exploits the natural soul on choice covers (reggae singer Dawn Penn’s “You Don’t Love Me” and the Mingus-inspired original “Roots,” a gutsy floor shaker.) Pianist/keyboardist Kris Bowers, bassist Ben Williams and drummer Obed Calvaire ground the extraordinary rhythm team to which Charles adds tenor saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart and alto player Brian Hogan, along with the hyper-hot guitar of Alex Wintz and a crew of vocalists. From the start Charles’ fusion of spirited Afro-Caribbean rhythms reaches critical mass on the splashy “Creole,” which hitches an infectious groove to a swaggering horn arrangement, while tunes by Monk (“Green Chimneys”) and Bob Marley (“Turn Your Lights Down Low”) are freshened with skillful tempo shifts and a touch of New Orleans funk.

Charles is a lyrical trumpeter, with a keen style and sweet, rounded tone. At 30 years old, he mixes the potent with the poetic on Creole Soul with a confidence more like Wynton Marsalis and Roy Hargrove, two musicians that exert an influence on Charles’ style. Listening to his seven originals, especially the stout, straight-ahead “Midnight” and buoyant “Doin’ The Thing,” you know you’re hearing a major new voice on the scene who has made one of the best records of the year. (10 tracks; 54 minutes)

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There’s a matter-of-fact dignity to the bass saxophone, a horn of magnificent size and heft that produces the lowest notes from a brass instrument, which makes for a comfortable fit with six foot, seven inch saxophonist Brian Landrus. A prodigious writer and bandleader originally from Reno, Nevada, the saxophonist started playing tenor sax in his teens with the Coasters and the Drifters, two bands that schooled the young Landrus in R&B, soul and pop music styles. Back then, Landrus says that he often had his butt kicked nightly by pros like that, but admits they gave him an irreplaceable education that informs much of his writing today.  Switching to baritone on the advice of teacher and mentor, Bob Brookmeyer, Landrus’ authority on that sax, bass clarinet and other like reed instruments definitely strike a chord on Mirage, an understated masterpiece performed by a riveting quintet of jazz musicians with a string section conducted by Ryan Truesdell (Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans.)

Mirage (Blueland Records) sports a lucid, contemporary framework with a solid lineup of original tracks -- Landrus taps a melodic vein that benefits from soulful improvising by ace guitarist Nir Felder and keyboardist Frank Carlberg. Sonically lush, Mirage mixes rapturous harmonics with tunes that clearly have emotional significance for Landrus.  There’s an organic flow embodied in the sensitive “Someday” and the love song that is “Three Words.” The beautiful title track is full of good feeling, from the opening chorus of strings to the modern, low-slung groove anchored by Lonnie Plaxico and Rudy Royston. Carlberg gets a choice Fender Rhodes feature on “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” while the reggae-tinged “I’ve Been Told” and backbeat-driven “Jade” balance strings against Landrus’ horn to create a sound that’s not coincidentally reminiscent of early dates by Grover Washington, Jr.
photo by Fred Lebayle
The charts that Landrus wrote for Mirage treat strings (there are four credited players, led by violinist Mark Feldman) like a sixth instrument, which gives the leader another voice to interact with his horn and the rhythm section. While there are honorable swathes of R&B, soul and contemporary jazz folded into the mix, Landrus has an uncanny ability to weave serene and gorgeous jazz melodies together that make an ultimate connection directly to the heart of the listener. (12 tracks; 57 minutes)

On the afternoon of July 2, 2013 I had the privilege of conducting an interview with Brian Landrus and Ryan Truesdell, meeting with them at Joe Papp’s Public Theater prior to Brian’s sound check for his CD release performance of Mirage. To read more about the album along with his whirlwind travel adventures as part of Esperanza Spalding’s touring band, find it on my August 5 posting.

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photo by Tanner Photography
After more than 30 recordings and award winning collaborations, Earl Klugh remains one of the most tasteful and accomplished guitarists around. Unlike his recent group efforts, Hand Picked (Heads Up) is a mostly solo effort featuring old school standards and four breezy originals played with Klugh’s customary charm and one-of-a-kind sound. Deceptively spare, his interpretations of “Alfie,” “Cast Your Fate To The Wind,” and The Beatles “If I Fell” are soft and gentle with easy going tempos, over which Klugh adds light-as-a-feather improvisations. The album is highlighted by two particular duets. Guitarist Bill Frisell first met Klugh back in 2007 when they were playing in a guitar trio along with Russell Malone. The mutual admiration between these guys is tangible on their sonically blissful version of “Blue Moon.”  Then there’s the dazzling ukelele player Jake Shimabukuro who sits in with Klugh for a delicately tuneful 8-minute take on “Hotel California. Though it may confound jazz purists (the sixteen tunes are generally brief, favoring quality over quantity), Klugh’s introspective album is essentially a valentine to his fans, one that’s sealed with a cover of “This Time,” a Klugh original with a profound melody that lingers. (16 tracks; 53 minutes)

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