Have Sax, Will Travel

Rensselaer horn player Brian Patneaude makes his mark with steady gigs in five bands, including his own jazz quintet

By Peter Hanson
Photo by Julia Florer

I’ve definitely come to the realization that there’s music that I like and music that I don’t like,” says Brian Patneaude. “But because I don’t like it, that doesn’t mean it’s crap jazz.”

The fact that Patneaude has already evolved past youthful elitism is an indication of how far his musical travels have taken him during his young life. Only 27, the Rensselaer saxophonist is an in-demand player who has his own quintet and a reputation for coming through in a myriad of different settings. In addition to his own group, Patneaude plays with Alex Torres and the Latin Kings, the Empire Jazz Orchestra, the Adrian Cohen Quartet, and R&B cover band the Refrigerators. Patneaude guesses that he’s played with more than a hundred groups during his professional life—which is quite an accomplishment for a musician who spent several years treating his chosen instrument as a second priority.

The Rotterdam native began playing the sax in fifth grade. “I had a neighbor that played sax,” he recalls. “He used to play outside in back of his house, and I remember thinking ‘I should give it a shot.’”

Patneaude played in school bands all the way through his studies at Schalmont High, but he got distracted by another instrument when he was a teen. “In high school I also played drums, because my father had a drum kit,” he says. “I was really into heavy metal. I played drums in a heavy-metal band, and sax kinda fell by the wayside.” The youthful headbanger played his first pseudo-professional gigs with the heavy-metal band, but he already had an inkling of where his musical destiny might lead.

When Patneaude was in ninth grade, an instructor turned him on to the contemporary-jazz sounds of players including Mike Stern and David Sanborn. “At that point, I wasn’t sure what the sax could sound like or should sound like,” he recalls. “At that point, my conception of sax was the kids sitting next to me in [school bands], which didn’t sound too good.”

Patneaude says that he didn’t immediately think about playing jazz for a living—instead, he experimented with new horn sounds at home, and integrated jazz-style creativity into his metallurgy. “Even in the heavy-metal band,” he says, “I was always trying to do things my way and trying to improvise beyond what was written on the page.”

Patneaude’s next step was enrolling at the College of Saint Rose, but choosing his course of study required him to make a compromise with his parents. “They were pretty insistent that I get a degree in something that I could make a living in,” he explains, “so they were pretty happy with the music-education degree, thinking someday I might be a music teacher. And someday I may.”

At Saint Rose, Patneaude got more serious about jazz, and horn playing in general. He eventually hooked up with other students in a Tower of Power-style band called Method 11, with whom he played his first professional shows at such area venues as Pauly’s Hotel. Once he got his degree from Saint Rose, Patneaude moved to Ohio and tried graduate school for a year, then came back to the Capital Region to concentrate on developing his live-performance chops. While working day jobs at record stores, Patneaude carved a niche for himself in the local scene, and in 1998 he formed the Brian Patneaude Quintet. The bandleader says the quintet, whose lineup has changed several times, draws its strength from eclecticism.

It’s definitely jazz in nature,” he notes. “There’s elements of rock and R&B, there’s elements of Latin music at times. We try to throw our individual influences into the mix and see what comes up. Danny Whelchel, the drummer—he’s from the South, and his background is in second-line Cajun music . . . The piano player, Nicholas Lue, has spent half his life playing in Alex’s band, so he’s pretty firmly rooted in that. And [guitarist] George Muscatello is coming from all different directions, but he’s pretty rooted in the jazz that’s happening today in downtown New York, sort of a darker, ethereal jazz. So he brings that in.”

The quintet—rounded out by newly hired bassist Ryan Lukas—haven’t recorded anything other than a seven-track live demo, but Patneaude says an album may be recorded later this year if he and his bandmates can clear time in their hectic performing schedules. In the meantime, the group play out regularly at such venues as the Larkin Lounge in Albany, performing mostly original tunes, as well as epic adventures like the Don Grolnick number “Nothing Personal,” a 14-minute version of which appears on the demo. “We stretch out a bit,” Patneaude says with a smile. “Hopefully the audience is still there when we get done.”

While his main focus is the quintet, Patneaude has nothing but kind words to say about the other gigs that make up his professional life. He says that he looks at every different performing situation as a learning experience, and that being able to shift from jazz to Latin music to R&B chestnuts—sometimes playing a different genre every night of the week—keeps him from growing bored with any one type of music. Patneaude’s crowded slate also includes part-time work at Barnes & Noble’s Albany location and teaching at Blue Sky Studios in Delmar. “My life consists of work, teaching, five bands and a girlfriend,” he says. “Sleep is in there somewhere. I would say that I’m pretty saturated with music.”

The saxophonist adds that by playing in a variety of bands, he gets unexpected opportunities, like the Latin Kings’ upcoming performance at the Montreal Jazz Festival in July. “That could be the biggest gig I ever play in my life,” he says, adding that “hired gun” gigs offer a healthy alternative to performances with the quintet. “Sometimes when I’m doing my own music, I can be a little uptight. With the Fridges or with Alex Torres, it’s out of my hands. I just show up and blow. There’s less responsibility.

I’ve always said I would not do those other things if they weren’t fun,” he continues. “I don’t want to be in the situation where I’m just doing gigs for money.”

- from Metroland - Thursday, March 14th, 2002