Landry bringing visionary skills to valley for Carbondale Clay Center
Growing up in Cecilia, La., Dickie Landry figures he was bound to be a musician.Cecilia, after all, is the Catholic patron saint of musicians. And being raised just a few miles from the Cajun music capital of Lafayette, Landry did indeed develop strong feelings about the native sound.”Three chords, out-of-tune saxophones and stupid lyrics” is how Landry sums up Cajun music. “It doesn’t excite me. I don’t want to play Cajun music. I’ll play anything else.”Landry is pretty much true to his word on this last statement. Currently living back in Cecilia full time, after years of splitting his time between his hometown and New York City, the 65-year-old Landry blows his saxophone in a reggae band and a punk outfit. Perhaps his greatest love of the moment is his swamp-pop band, Li’l Band of Gold, devoted to the popular music of the mid-’50s. Last year, Landry sat in for all of Bob Dylan’s set at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival – less than 24 hours after making Dylan’s acquaintance. He contributed the Louisiana flavor to Paul Simon’s landmark “Graceland” album. And Landry first came to some measure of notoriety as a founding member of the Philip Glass Ensemble.When he appears Thursday at a benefit event for the Carbondale Clay Center, at the Missouri Heights studio of artists Charmaine Locke and James Surls, Landry will be playing a style of his own invention, known as quad delay. The technique, which he invented in the early 1970s, allows Landry to layer four of his own saxophone tracks over each other, becoming in essence a solo quartet.It has been an odd and sprawling career for Landry, especially if you factor in that he is also a composer and a visual artist as well, one closely associated with the major figures of the ’60s and ’70s New York avant-garde. So it isn’t entirely surprising that Landry had an odd introduction to music.”I was raised on Catholic Gregorian chants,” said Landry. “There was no electricity, no running water, no roads. My mother brought me to the church, and I saw the choir singing these Gregorian chants. I sang six to seven days a week.”After picking up the saxophone at age 10, Landry was influenced by the live blues he heard being played in a club through the woods, and the new sound of bebop he heard on New York radio stations on the radio his brother brought back from the Army. Landry studied clarinet at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette. But after two years of teaching there, he grew bored with the teaching profession and headed to New York.In 1968, an artist friend introduced Landry to Philip Glass. The two talked for a while, until Glass excused himself to make tea for a blind friend of his. The friend turned out to be Moondog, the avant-garde street saxophonist Landry greatly admired. Later, Glass brought Landry to dinner with another young composer, Steve Reich, and the three shared food and music. Landry was impressed enough with Glass and his acquaintances that he accepted Glass’ invitation to join the composer’s new ensemble.It turned out not to be much of a commitment at first: In 1969, the Philip Glass Ensemble played just one concert, and Landry and Glass worked days together as plumbers. But in the 11 years Landry spent with the group, the Glass Ensemble grew to prominence in the contemporary classical world.Landry had always had ambitions in the visual arts as well. In 1964, he saw a Time magazine piece about Robert Rauschenberg’s grand-prize win at the Venice Biennale. It may have been the critical moment for Landry, who saw the world open in front of him.”He painted his bed and put it on the wall,” marveled Landry. “That fried my mind. I thought, if he could do this, I could do whatever I wanted.”Landry’s position in the New York music scene gave him access to the masters of pop art. Along with Glass, late monologuist Spalding Gray and photorealist painter Chuck Close – “a lineup, huh?” said Landry – he helped build Richard Serra’s first installation at the famed Leo Castelli Gallery. Eventually, Landry began having gallery exhibits of his art, including videos, photography and paintings. For two years recently, Landry had a gallery in Lafayette; he is planning on reopening later this year.While it is a point of pride with Landry that he hasn’t played Cajun music – just as he prides himself on playing only two nightclub gigs in all his years in New York as he prefers playing in museums, churches and concert halls – he didn’t mind lending his knowledge to a significant cause.In the mid-’80s, Landry was recording with Talking Heads at a midtown Manhattan studio for their “Speaking in Tongues” album. David Byrne brought him up the street to the Carnegie Recital Hall, where Paul Simon was checking out a Cajun music concert. Simon was enthused about the sound, although Landry had to correct his pronunciation of the word “zydeco.” (Simon kept accenting the second syllable.)”Next thing I know, I’m in the studio with Simon every night for a few hours, criticizing him. Because no one else would,” said Landry, who ended up earning a platinum record award for his contributions to Simon’s “Graceland.”Even more improbable was Landry’s brush with Dylan. The night before Dylan’s appearance at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival last year, Tony Garnier, Dylan’s bassist and bandleader, and a Louisiana acquaintance of Landry’s, introduced Landry to his boss.Dylan, though notoriously shy of strangers, was intrigued by Landry’s association with Philip Glass. When Dylan asked Landry to tell him a story about his time with Glass, Landry entertained him by recounting their plumbing escapades. Dylan invited Landry to join his band in their set the next night; Landry, expecting to sit in for a tune or two, played the entire set.Landry’s quad delay technique grew out of his distaste for playing in bands. At a memorial concert for a friend, at which he was to play solo, a sound engineer asked him how many tracks he wanted. Landry’s quip – “How many you got?” – spurred a successful experiment with delayed signals.”It deals with the limits of the saxophone. If there are any,” he said. “It’s structured, but improvised between the structure.”So just how did a saxophonist from Cajun country become a visionary, interested in avant-garde art, minimalist music and pioneering technology?”I have not a clue,” said Landry. “I wish somebody would explain it to me. Maybe it was those Gregorian chants.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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