Low woodwind ace Brian Landrus - "someone to watch, an exciting voice" (JazzTimes) - presents The Deep Below, his sixth album as a leader and the debut recording of his trio with bassist Lonnie Plaxico and drummer Billy Hart. To be released on June 16 by BlueLand/Palmetto, The Deep Below finds Landrus playing baritone saxophone, bass clarinet, bass flute and bass sax with lithe virtuosity; he breathes life into his own characteristically probing originals, two co-writes with Plaxico and fresh interpretations of classics by Duke Ellington and John Coltrane, as well as an intimately affecting treatment of the Sinatra ballad "I'm a Fool to Want You." The rapport between the leader and the two rhythm veterans is ideal, with Plaxico and Hart having already paired on Landrus' highly praised 2011 quartet album, Traverse, where they made sure the tunes "swing with passion" (All About Jazz). In its four-star review of that album, DownBeat encapsulated the leader's talents on his various instruments: "Landrus plays with gentle authority, his pliable, distinctive tone built on expressive devices like vibrato, multiphonics and pitch blends. He has a way of connecting notes with subtle slides and graceful glisses, embellishing melodies with turns and trills that build momentum and scream good taste." Landrus has been voted a Rising Star multiple years running in the DownBeat Critics Poll, and along with his work as a bandleader and composer, he has toured the world as part of star bassist-vocalist Esperanza Spalding's band and contributes to such ensembles as the Grammy-winning Gil Evans Project.
For Landrus - who is working on a PhD in classical composition at Rutgers University and finishing a concerto for baritone sax and another for bass clarinet - the trio album with Plaxico and Hart was a chance to explore "something more intimate for awhile, music that's sparer and freer," he says. "I wrote the tunes right on my various instruments, just trying to create melodies that felt good on the bari sax or bass clarinet or bass flute or bass sax. I even wrote lyrics to most of my pieces and tried to sing them through my horn with the goal of making each note really significant." The big horns came natural to Landrus, as he points out: "I'm 6'7" - so physically the instruments fit me. But I was also drawn to these instruments because there are fewer preconceptions on them. Everyone knows what the good tenor saxophone sounds like - the great examples are endless. Although there have been some wonderful players of the low instruments over the decades, there's still more room to express yourself, the options feel open to me."
There's an extraordinary range of sonic character across The Deep Below. The weight of sound in Landrus' baritone sax - whether in tune-rich opener "Fly" or even the quickstep solo version of "Giant Steps" - is something you can feel as well as hear, reflecting the album's title. The same goes for his dusky tone on bass clarinet in "Fields of Zava" or the solo excursion "A Fading Memory." His quiet lyricism on bass flute aptly evokes the title of "Ancient," while he evinces a brawny beauty on the rarely heard bass sax in "The Beginning." For Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady,"
Landrus was influenced by Harry Carney's "gorgeous" baritone interpretation - "one of my favorite songs by one of - over -
my favorite players." The interpretation of "I'm a Fool to Want You" was inspired less by the Sinatra original than by late-period Billie Holiday. Landrus says: "You can hear the pain in her Lady in Satin recording - it's raw feeling. I was aiming for emotional intimacy, really thinking about the lyrics. We learned it right there in the studio and got it in the first take. Lonnie and Billy love the song, and it shows."
About his august rhythm partners for The Deep Below, Landrus says: "With Lonnie and Billy, it's never just a job - they're too honest and organic as musicians. They've played together for decades, but my album Traverse was their first recording together, surprisingly. Billy is an amazing interpreter - he has power but also romance. He likes to keep it loose, but he's more about playing the music than soloing. He keeps it classy. Lonnie has this precise articulation that I've always loved, and he grooves so deeply. He's in my Kaleidoscope band, too, and he is a wise, collaborative help in the studio. I always like working with players who are way above me - it raises me up."
Born in 1978 and raised in Nevada, Landrus began playing saxophone at 12 and was performing professionally by 15. He earned his bachelor's degree in saxophone performance at the University of Nevada-Reno and two master's degrees at New England Conservatory, one in jazz composition and the other in jazz saxophone. Currently, he is a PhD candidate in classical composition at Rutgers. Based in Brooklyn, Landrus founded his own label, BlueLand Records, in 2011. His first releases of all original music via BlueLand were Traverse (a quartet date with Plaxico, Hart and pianist Michael Cain) and Capsule (by the Brian Landrus Kaleidoscope, with Cain, guitarist Nir Felder, bassist Matthew Paris, drummer Rudy Royston). In 2013, Landrus released a second Kaleidoscope album, Mirage, featuring himself on baritone sax, bass sax, bass clarinet, contra alto clarinet and bass flute alongside Felder, Royston, Plaxico on acoustic and electric bass, Frank Carlberg on Rhodes/piano and a string quartet led by violinist Mark Feldman, with Ryan Truesdell conducting/co-producing. The New York Times praised Landrus and Mirage at length, pointing out that "the tenderness in his playing feels as warm and accessible as his writing."
Along with touring the world in superstar Esperanza Spalding's band (on baritone/tenor saxophones and bass clarinet) and playing in Truesdell's prize-winning Gil Evans Project, Landrus has played with some of the world's great musicians: Bob Brookmeyer, Jerry Bergonzi, Rufus Reid, Danilo Perez, Frank Kimbrough, Gary Smulyan, Ronnie Cuber, Maria Schneider, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Martha Reeves, The Coasters, The Drifters, George Garzone, Jason Palmer, Rakalam Bob Moses, Louis Nash, Peter Epstein, Nicholas Urie, Darryl Harper, David Ake, Allan Chase, Francis Vanek, John Lockwood, Ayn Inserto, Alan Ferber, Omar Thomas, Scott Robinson and Ralph Alessi, among others. Landrus teaches at the 92Y School of Music in New York City and The Lagond Music School in Westchester, New York.