Peter Monaghan:
Liner Notes for I.N.I.T.I.A.L.S., 2005


Peter Monaghan: Liner Notes for the Double Album
I. N. I. T. I. A. L. S.
sources along the songlines [1979-1991]

J.W.B. – Initiating Currents in his Songlines

Time, John Wolf Brennan has noticed, often follows “curved air currents.” The past does not return, but aspects of it can waft back to one’s consciousness. One can see that at work in his extraordinary musical career. Since the late 1970s, the prodigious composer and pianist has compiled a store of music that has been as strikingly diverse and fresh as it has been assured and convincing. And, as he has progressed, he has gusted forward on currents of sound that he set in motion when, as a classically trained but restless pianist, he set about forging his own musical vision.

In the early work in this compilation, as still today, his original models carried him ahead. There was, for example, what he calls “beautiful noise, joyful anarchy,” whose source he locates in his early affection for Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath. There were Celtic and other folk sources. And there were Brennan’s heavy-rock roots. “Let’s not forget those,” he says, unafraid of jazz’s frequent suspicion of such inspirations as Jimi Hendrix, Jethro Tull, and many other even-more-baroque rockers.

By the time Brennan recorded his first 12 years’ worth of music, exemplified here, he had mastered and merged a vast array of musical styles, moods, and hues, and he had assuredly begun to stake his claim to being a jazzman for the modern age. Some observers have wondered whether he really is a jazzman, at all. That seems silly, but so straitened is jazz, in some of its mustier quarters, that it generally barely notices musicians who bring to it the breadth of innovation that Brennan does. Inside the United States, at least, most of jazz journalism, radio, and fandom – somnolent as ever – has paid scant attention to his 25-plus years of contributions. Not to worry; so it goes. Brennan has offered, to jazz, life blood by the litre, and plenty of listeners, chiefly in Europe, have realized that he is as vital a shaping force for giant steps ahead as any musician on either side of the Atlantic.

Hear the evidence, starting here. These cuts, while fully enjoyable and compelling in their own right, can also be savored as foundations of all Brennan’s subsequent work. Listening to his first, forthright strides, now, we are reminded that in music that dares to step outside the well-worn grooves of jazz development, assurance can be even more important than technique, although Brennan had heaps of both.

Treading as many musical paths as a Swiss cow does mountain tracks – and with as uncanny a sense of balance – Brennan has arrived, today, at a stunning amalgam of multiple, entwined currents. For example, his breathtaking, international, drumless quartet Pago Libre does consummately everything that Brennan attempts on these early recordings. It grabs up handfuls of styles and forms, and reaches beyond them, and beyond any simple or stifling confines of genre. It creates a seamless, bewitching blend of jazz, classical, and new music, together with the regional music of Austria, Ireland, Moldavia, Umbria, Russia, and Switzerland, all laced with the spirit and expansiveness of the best free improvisation.
Those results are in keeping with his origins, which were polyglot, international, and exhaustively musical. His father’s family were Wolfs from Dresden and Karlsbad (Karlovy Vary) who moved to Ireland soon after Hitler annexed, in 1938, what he called “Reichsprotektorat Bohemia.” His mother’s tribe, the Brennans, hailed from Dublin, and before that from Donegal in the rugged, picturesque, and even today strongly Irish-speaking Northwest corner of the Republic. But when he was just seven, he and his family moved to Switzerland, and he became, as he says, “a transplanted Celtic Irishman living in Celtic Central Switzerland,” which is what the Lake Lucerne region had become hundreds of years earlier when Rome fell, and the Celts moved from Bohemia toward western Europe, Britain, and Ireland. Brennan’s father was an accomplished amateur pianist; his mother was a classically trained singer who also livened the parlor with Irish folk songs. His uncle Karl-Ulrich Wolf was a renowned classical pianist and composer. Brennan has maintained himself in a thoroughly musical environment by marrying Béatrice Wolf, another concert pianist, with whom he has three musical daughters: Móreen, Enya, and Jayne.

It was from Switzerland, as a teenager, that Brennan heard and embraced Chris McGregor’s “joyful anarchy.” His band of South African exiles in London practiced a kind of “culturally reversed colonialism,” as Brennan puts it, and it helped to spark jazz-related innovation in London and throughout Europe from the 1960s, on. Another inspiration was Dollar Brand, who would become Abdullah Ibrahim, and who had fled South Africa’s apartheid regime for Europe.

While Brennan was at the University of Fribourg, in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, he became aware of the American jazz greats of the day, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Pharoah Sanders, Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman. He took to trekking, as if to a pilgrimage, to the annual summer jazz festivals at Willisau and Montreux. And he devoured the lessons of McCoy Tyner (as you hear on these discs, especially on tracks like “Lullaby”), Cecil Taylor, and particularly Jimmy Giuffre Trio-era Paul Bley. The Bley influence is heard, on this compilation, in Brennan’s own sly, antic moods and constructions, and particularly detectable in his angular 1982 duo session with Swiss saxophonist Urs Blöchlinger, who tragically died prematurely in 1995.

Brennan’s schooling in the innovations and passion of the North Americans, together with the intense outcry of the South Africans, prepared him for his own, later adventures with the giants of the London scene, including Evan Parker, Elton Dean, Paul Rutherford, Julie Tippetts, and many more. He says he found “the wild mixture of chaos and anarchy (to which I felt very attracted, also in my political views) and collective group interaction” to be essential elements of making music. So, too, he says, was “the very liberal use of dissonances and consonances, not excluding one another, but rather complementing each other.”

Many progressive big bands influenced him, too, including those of Willem Breuker, Mike Westbrook, Charlie Haden’ s Liberation Orchestra, Carla Bley, Michael Gibbs, Keith Tippett’s Centipede, Mike Westbrook, Gil Evans, and Matthias Rüegg’s Vienna Art Orchestra. Their spirit is heard in Brennan’s early works not only in his skillful, expansive arrangements, but also in the way he directs from the piano stool, and from the scores, and pushes forward only at appropriate moments to highlight his own highly distinctive piano playing. He holds his own playing in balance, intent as he is on thematic expression rather than a jazz-like advertisement of chops. But big bands are only one source of inspiration for Brennan. Asked for his favorite and most influential musicians of his youth and young adulthood, he quickly rattles off a list that is a who’s who of jazz innovation, 1960-1975.
One might think that pianists would command his attention, and, in the early 1970s, he did listen intently to Chick Corea with Return to Forever, Jan Hammer in the incomparable Mahavishnu Orchestra, Herbie Hancock with Miles Davis, Joe Zawinul with Weather Report — the pantheon of the day. But his key piano influences had come earlier, from his classical training. When it came to jazz, he looked to... well, he looked all over the place. He nods to guitarists (John McLaughlin, Allan Holdsworth, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell), drummers (Bill Bruford, Tony Williams, Peter Erskine, Paul Motian), singers (Julie Tippetts, Norma Winstone, Annette Peacock), reed players (Evan Parker, Wayne Shorter, Gato Barbieri, John Surman). The list goes on – to include, it would seem, a healthy selection of the most outstanding, open-eared innovators, anywhere. In the same breath as Brennan names American greats like Anthony Braxton and Charles Mingus, he is in Italy (Gianluigi Trovesi), England (Dave Holland), Brazil (Egberto Gismonti), and Israel/England (saxophonist Gilad Atzmon).

And jazz was only a part of his self-education. He listened, for starters, to his mother – generally a good idea, but particularly so when she rounds off parlor recitals of the romantic classical repertoire by singing Celtic folk songs. “I guess I had no choice but to dive into a hefty dose of this warm, beer-hearted and turf-fire smoke-filled biotopos,” Brennan says. Four moving plainly stated Celtic Country Dances intersperse this collection, with Brennan on guitar and Ushma Baumeler on violin or recorder. And proceedings continue in Celtic dance mode on tracks like Desert Dance, although here we seem to be at something like an Incredible String Band freak-out, with hippie drums, and faeries unleashed. That effect of wistful and dappled sound is sustained in the selections by the 1982-83 trio Triumbajo, where Ushma Baumeler’s violin, recorders, and bamboo flute and Brennan’s piano (played inside and out), are joined by Barni Palm’s tabla, temple gongs, balafon, log drums, and glass bells.

Infused through all these recordings, in addition, is the influence of rock music, particularly in forms where compositional ambition and instrumental virtuosity were unabashed. Brennan began his non-classical career as a bass guitarist, playing at the age of 15 in a rock/R&B band. Called Crossbreed, it was, he confesses (or is that, boasts?), decidedly “primitive.” While most of us were just listening to the wide swath of rock represented by Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Deep Purple, Humble Pie, and the Rolling Stones, Crossbreed was playing covers by all of those! Brennan recalls that he was also captivated by the usual fascinations of an early 1970s rock-entranced youth: Cream with Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce, the Beatles, Blind Faith, Frank Zappa. Then there were “fusion” outfits, before the term was commonly applied: the folk-oriented Traffic, for example, and the jazzers Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago, and arguably Santana. There were also plenty of pop bands, too, which Brennan unashamedly champions as valuable contributors to his tunesmithing, too.

When rock went gloriously pretentious (thank goodness someone made the effort), Brennan was all ears. The year 1973, he recalls, was a particular tasty one: He turned 19, and Yes released Fragile, King Crimson served up Lark’s Tongue in Aspic, and Genesis set about Selling England by the Pound. That was prog-rock at its finest, but Brennan also recalls digging deeper, to uncover “the ambivalent ghost rides of Art Rock, with Soft Machine, Gentle Giant, Nucleus, Henry Cow, the Canterbury Scene, and others who inspired “my ongoing love affair with ‘vulgar rhythms’ (György Ligeti) and intricate bass lines, to which I often devoted special attention – ‘drums’n’bass’ without the ol’ kit and the electric bass, as it were.”


A happy coincidence, in this context, was the Irishman transported at an early age to central Switzerland, the megaguitarist Christy Doran, who is surely one of the most gifted of rock and jazz players on the instrument. A veteran of just about everything interesting that has emerged from the country’s fascinating, often overlapping jazz and rock scenes, Doran makes his appearance first in a 1988 duo with Brennan, heard on three tracks here. The collaboration flourished, as evidenced by the quartet track Il deserto rosso, with Urs Leimgruber on tenor sax and Steve Arguëlles on drums, and Mountain Songline I: Scudding Clouds, a stirring trio cut from Brennan, Doran, and Arguëlles. The two Swiss Irishmen’s association continues to this day, most recently on the stellar 2004 trio album with Patrice Héral, Triangulation (Leo).

Also in the mix, for Brennan, as for many of the bands he esteemed, were many contemporary classical composers, from Charles Ives and Igor Stravinsky to John Cage (with whom Brennan worked briefly), Ligeti, and the magician of Italian film scores, Ennio Morricone (with whom Brennan took master classes in composition).

All of these influences made him, as critic Ken Waxman (JazzWeekly/San Francisco) once observed, “the very epitome of the 21st century musician,” and they fitted into his notion that music is always either “good” or “useless,” while “labels don’t really matter any more.” In a recent interview he said: “I see the artist of today as an ‘arrière-gardist’ – in the sense that someone has to clean up the so-called ‘rubbish’ – sometimes it turns out to be the perfect raw material for new music.”

Also informing the music heard here is Brennan’s polymathic curiosity in other arts and fields of study. Over many years, for example, he has composed more than 40 works for the theatre. He has also created numerous sound installations, “transdisciplinary” performance pieces, and now is at work on an opera, Night.Shift, scheduled for production in St. Gallen, in eastern Switzerland, in may 2007. “The king’s discipline of music drama,” he says, “seemed like a natural quest.”

Given the distinctive, varied nature of his art, it is no surprise that Brennan has ceased to try to characterize it by such terms as “jazz.” Instead, he adopts phrases used by listeners, such as “calculated ecstasy,” “chamber explosion,” “comprovisation,” and “a kind of sun-kissed serialism.” These are not rubrics you’ll see in your local CD megastore, anytime soon. But you get the idea.

Slice his output another way, and you’ll hear that he has long embraced surprising instrumental timbres. From his first recordings, for instance, he made use of the recorder (to great effect, on Looking for Mr Ulysses, played by Ushma Baumeler, in the second, 1981-84 edition of the Impetus quintet), the violin, and the marimba (not to mention the “water sink” – on 1982’s Down the Sink) and he would later inject the melodica, cow bells, church bells, glockenspiel, and the pipe organ. He traces his embrace of arresting sound to his infancy where he thought his family’s vintage Blüther piano was just a giant, horizontal version of the harp his mother plucked. The prepared-piano approach he began to take, then – as, here, on “Mountain Songline II: Windgaelle” – reached a glorious high point on his stunning piano album, The Well-Prepared Clavier (Creative Works, 1998).

Also evident, starting way back here, is what Brennan calls “interstellar sci-fi excursions of the third kind and mind,” which he exemplifies with writers Stanislav Lem and Isaac Asimov, and the Russian film giant, André Tarkovsky. On Voyager, from Brennan’s first LP, Opening Seed (1979), his piano ripples starward while Thomas Dürst’s bass creates expanding space, before embarking on a rather quizzical jaunt.

Brennan clearly revels in such subjects as physics, geography, and repeated and fractal forms, as his odes to red deserts, rainbows, and mountain songlines demonstrate, here, as later titles, like The Beauty of Fractals, Triangulation, Momentum, Entropology, Time Jumps – Space Cracks, String Theory, and Sculpted Sound have, too.

He is no mere egghead, of course. That is evident from the outset of this package, in the Felliniesque Federico. It begins a set of four pieces recorded live in 1981 with the Swiss nonet, Nonätt, powered by the saxophone of Urs Blöchlinger and the forthright, roughhewn trumpet of Peter Schärli. They make clear that even when riotous, Brennan was thinking lucidly through complex compositional issues – and making nine pieces come at least close to a big-band sound.

His clowning side is heard later, too, on Silly Blues from the 1981-84 phase of his quintet Impetus; Rebecca’s Song, a lovely ode to silly love from Brennan’s 1980-83 duo with Blöchlinger; and T.N.T. (12th Night Tango), with its overt theatre reference. Performed by his SinFONietta 12-tet in 1991, it sets the speech by Duke Orsino that opens the play: “If music be the food of love...”

Already in the 1981 live set, recorded against typical jazz-venue clatter at the Casino Lucerne, one detects Brennan’s care in modulating tone and scale. On Ballad for Bea, Beat Wenger foxtrots in behind Stephan Richter’s lightly accompanied fretless bass solo before the nonet cranks up sympathetically. The effect of smallness and largeness balanced is something that Brennan has worked on all along, and has perfected in Pago Libre. “The tiniest lineup sometimes sounds more ‘orchestral’ than a big band,” he notes. In this, his choice of collaborators, and his confidence in them, has been essential. From the beginning, he has enacted his plans with some masters, although many have, like him, lacked outside Europe the notice they have deserved worldwide.

Over the course of his career, now in full flower, Brennan has created music that discernibly displays its raw materials yet never threatens to descend into pastiche. We hear his staging of this approach, on these discs, and they provide fascinating context for his current output, which is most extraordinary in Pago Libre, which currently is a collaboration by Brennan; Russian multi-horn player Arkady Shilkloper; Austrian classical, new-music, and other-music violinist and violist Tscho Theissing; and, most recently, Austrian bass wiz Georg Breinschmid (of the Vienna Art Orchestra). As it blends rural and urban forms – folk dances of Umbria, Karelia, and neighbouring Scandinavia, but also Viennese waltzes and East European polkas – the whole seems, as Brennan himself puts it, like some kind of controlled alchemical process. That the foursome is far less at risk of blowing itself up as a chemist of old is due in large part to the sure hand that Brennan developed here, at the dawn of three decades, so far, of edgy, engaging musical creation.

Peter Monaghan, Seattle/USA, Spring/Summer 2005

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