University of Nevada, Reno alum Brian Landrus has been a respected musician for years, but his career kicked into overdrive last month. In late October, the 34-year-old woodwind specialist started touring with jazz superstar Esperanza Spalding, and he is now an official member of her band.
"It's almost like my whole life has been working toward this," Landrus said during a phone interview from his home in New York. "We're playing enormous festivals, and we're headlining these festivals."
Landrus, who is playing tenor and baritone sax for Spalding, said he was invited to audition for her band earlier this year. Because he's been a baritone saxophone specialist since leaving Reno in 2003, he assumed Spalding wanted him to focus on that instrument, but she told him she was looking for someone to play tenor as well. That meant brushing up on his skills.
"I hadn't touched that instrument in three years," Landrus said. "The funny part of the audition, too, is I played baritone on one song. It was a four-hour thing, and I played baritone for a total of maybe 15 minutes."
Regardless, Spalding liked what she heard and signed Landrus to a long-term contract, including a spot on her current European tour. He said the experience has been great so far, and he credits much of his success to the Reno musicians who guided him during childhood and young adulthood. Born in Reno, Landrus attended Billinghurst Middle School the first year that it was open.
"That's pretty much why I play music," Landrus said. "Lani Oelerich, who was my middle school band teacher, introduced me to Frank Perry who was my saxophone teacher. I started taking lessons from him when I was in seventh grade."
Despite having an immense interest in the subject, Landrus said his first year as a musician was rough.
"I was such a crazy-ass kid that when I was in sixth grade and everyone was learning to play I broke my arm like two times," he said. "I didn't even get to play the saxophone, but I loved music and I insisted on sitting in the band at the concert even though I couldn't play. So, I actually was the worst in class."
It didn't take long for Landrus to overcome the early setbacks. Once his arm healed, he made a point of practicing daily.
"I think I actually caught up in a couple months," he said. "I would practice hours every day really from the get go. My mom is proud to say that she never once asked me or told me to practice."
One of Landrus' earliest musical memories is of Frank Perry introducing him to the music of Charlie Parker and explaining that the jazz great was improvising much of what he played. After that lesson, Landrus said, he knew he wanted to be a professional musician.
He started down that road by playing shows with Perry's band when he was just 13. As he matured, Landrus became a regular in the Reno music scene.
"I started my own band when I was 17," he said. "I had a quartet that would play around. Then, I started the Brian Landrus Project, which I guess was my really successful band in Reno. ... It was all jazz musicians, but we would play all sorts of different types of world music."
After high school, Landrus continued his education at the University of Nevada, and he said he will forever owe a debt to trumpet professor Larry Engstrom. Landrus said he was floundering and didn't even know if he was going to study music in college when Engstrom came to the rescue.
"Larry actually called my mom and said that he had noticed that I hadn't signed up for school," Landrus said. "He had heard me through the years. He actually talked to my mom and said they could get me a scholarship and have me go to the school, so I did. I don't know where I would be without Larry and UNR because I was kind of lost."
Landrus credits his musical development to a number of other University of Nevada professors as well. He said former saxophone professor Francis Vanek had a huge impact on his playing, as did Director of Jazz Studies Peter Epstein and School of the Arts Director and piano professor David Ake.
"I learned a ton from David," Landrus said. "He opened up my mind to a different side of jazz."
After finishing a degree in saxophone performance at the University of Nevada, Landrus moved to Boston to study at the New England Conservatory. While there, he earned two master's degrees, one in composition and one in jazz saxophone.
Today, Landrus lives in Brooklyn, New York, and makes his living playing everything from saxophone to bass clarinet and alto flute. When he's not touring with Spalding, he teaches music, records for his own label (BlueLand Records) and produces recordings for a variety of musicians. Despite these accomplishments, it's the gig with Spalding that Landrus sees as the pinnacle of his career.
"It's shocking that she called me," he said. "There are a lot of players in New York. There are a lot of players in the world. ... I feel really lucky to have this opportunity."