« MUSINGS» London
March 2002


John Wolf Brennan: Text, Context, Co-Text & Co-Co-Text

(Creative Works CW 1025)
John Wolf Brennan (piano, compositions)

Brennan's third solo piano disc unites most of the things he's known for -- rhapsodic compositions, improvisation, canny preparations and extended techniques, whimsical folk-like tunes, rather Gothic poetry and a Joycean love of ambiguity and barefaced daftness. Over the course of seventeen tracks all this could become disorientating and fragmentary, but something holds these pieces together. That something is a sophisticated Romanticism; a something with all the wistful elegance of a Byron or even a Thoreau, but with a twentieth century sense of its own complexities and contradictions

Brennan loves a good tune, and his compositions are often hummable, disastrously so for his reputation among the European avant garde. He harmonises them with neither modal washes nor jazz cycles but genuine progressions;these are pieces which modulate, which shift in and out of atonality, which build into ringing cadences. And what gives them their propulsive energy is his hard rhythmic touch. Notes seem to spring from the keyboard, and his rubato is always musical, never technical, his free rhythms striding forwards as confidently as the tricky mixed metres of "Song of the Moon".

This is a less restless disk that last year's The Well-Prepared Clavier; what was fun about that disc, in part, was its manic inclusivity. Here there is much greater focus on straight, composed piano playing. Why? Perhaps because Brennan's subject is something like the construction of an alternative Irish music, a music which doesn't borrow from airs and jigs so much as from the inherent Romanticism, even sentimentality, with which the island's image is so bound up, as well, of course, as its legendary wit and literary virtuosity.

Which is not to say that Brennan romanticises the country of his birth so much as, if I have this right, that Ireland romanticises itself. It's there in Theo Dorgan's critical theory-
informed spirituality (an excerpt appears in the insert) which
is simultaneously academic, popular and frighteningly redolent of a kind of blood-and-soil nationalism. Brennan's music has to work its way around these contradictions, and he wisely leaves the wise-cracking experiments aside in favour of a simpler, more nuanced approach.

Not that this is joyless stuff, either. On the contrary, Brennan revels in the impossibility of his task. The result is a typically approachable listen from one of the most uncategorisable musicians around.

John Wolf Brennan HeXteT:

Through The Ear Of A Raindrop
(Leo Records CD LR 254)

Julie Tippetts (voice), Peter Whyman (bass clarinet), Evan Parker (saxophones), Paul Rutherford (trombone), John Wolf Brennan (piano, compositions), Chris Cutler (percussion)

Five of London's finest join forces to breathe life into eight of Brennan's songs, and also to jam with him in uncomposed settings. The result is an ensemble record whose only dominant voice is Julie Tippetts, and then only during the straighter sections. Elsewhere, the group fuses together, overcoming its individuals' strong musical personalities to create a cohesive sound.

Brennan's setting reflect the concerns of the poems he chooses. So, Meehan's "No Go Area" is a military march, Poe is given a folk melody, Heany gets two disconsolate pastorales. A rather misogynistic Shakespeare sonnet is accompanied by an ironic striptease wail (who'd have thought that was in Evan Parker's repertoire?), creating a careful balance between the polyphony of New Orleans and the polyphony of free improv.

Parker has often spoken of himself as a chameleon, adapting his playing to fit the demands of differentsituations. Many listeners know him only for his uncompromising improvisation, forgetting his work with Alexander von Schlippenbach, Kenny Wheeler and, now, John Wolf Brennan too. Of course, he still sounds like Evan Parker, but those who think that Conic Sections or the trio with Lytton and Guy are the beginning and the end of his work are in for a surprise. This holds true for Paul Rutherford, too, long a co-conspirator in some of Parker's most challenging music. Perhaps it's a perverse decision to get together a group of first-rate improvisors to perform your compositions, but Brennan is nothing if not perverse. And, as elsewhere, the perversity pays off.

These are all musicians who are perfectly capable of carrying the tunes, but Brennan seems to have wanted more than that, players who will inject imagination into these actually quite simple arrangements, players who can hardly resist the temptation to interpret freely and light the music up like a pinball table.Along with the song settings, the group also gives us five "Echos", improvisations presumably played after some of the songs. Hence after "No Go Area", you get "No Go Echo". The relationship between song and echo is not explicit, but general and vague connections of "mood" or "feel" can be discerned, perhaps simply by virtue of the overt connection made by the choice of title. In these, as elsewhere, the HeXteT play as an ensemble; "Eagle Echo" is particularly nice, with close and unfettered interplay between all concerned.

Pago Libre

(Leo Records CD LR )
Tscho Theissing (violin), Arkady Shilkloper (french horn),
John Wolf Brennan (piano), Daniele Patumi (bass)

Shooting Stars & Traffic Lights

(L&R CD LR 45090)
Tscho Theissing (violin), John Voirol (saxophones,
synthophone), John Wolf Brennan (piano), Daniele Patumi
(bass), Alex Cline (drums)

These two discs document Brennan's ongoing fascination with the jazz tradition. More than that, they gather up some of the strategies that he, Patumi and Theissing use in their attempts to breathe new life into the head-solos-head format, the metrical structures and cyclic changes which free jazz abandoned nearly forty years ago.

All this is rather reminiscent of Steve Lacy, who's had some nice things to say about Brennan's groups in the past. Not surprising, really, since they share a whistful but often abrasive approach, a tendency to switch from carress to rabbit punch without the slightest warning. In light of the fact that Brennan's reputation is built on his composition, however, it's good to see how much space he gives to Daniele Patumi and Tscho Theissing on these two sessions.

The former is a flashy, funky bass player with a tendency towards slap-style playing despite his using an upright instrument. His popping riffs underpin deceptively slippery melody lines, however, and his inventiveness gives his rhythm section work a firey effectiveness. Theissing, on the other hand, is half Grapelli, half kletzmer foot-stomper, injecting excitement into the written parts and diving headlong into his solos. These two navigate the tricky time signatures with an offhand swing born of familiarity with both the material and their fellow musicians.

Pago Libre are a regular group, a quartet who play ensemble-based jazz with a heavy compositional element and a close mutual understanding. Still, it's hard not to single out Arkady Shilkloper's contribution for special mention. He's a genuinely great jazz player, working the whole seam from bebop to freeform, on the French horn, of all things. Probably the finest jazz player on the instrument of all time, for his contribution alone this disc is worth the asking price. His compositions are surprisingly complex affairs given his tendency to focus on linear development in his solos; "Interlüdi" is an odd-metre-infused broth which just keeps on twisting and turning, sprouting unexpected melodic ideas right up to the end. "Waltz in 4/4", on the other hand, must be the only piece to make playing in the most common metre of all seem tricky, a strangely beguiling piece which has you constantly checking it still really is in four.

Shilkloper's absence in Shooting Stars & Traffic Lights, then, might seem a difficult one to make up for. That's if one forgets the sheer quality of Theissing and Patumi; if one forgets how good Brennan's piano sounds in these settings, and if one ignores the presence of Alex Cline and John Voirol, whose presence, in fairness, can't be ignored for long. Voirol is a lilting player, not much given to fireworks, but then, unlike Shilkloper, he doesn't have to prove the viability of his instrument every time he picks it up. As a result, he keeps things pretty cool and collected, even on a barnstormer like "Toccatacca", in which he does make a more aggressive intervention but still steers well clear of quick-fire runs or bluesy screaming. Where these techniques are employed – as on "Gathering at the Threshold" – he shows he can handle himself, but that seems to be a side of his playing that, at least in this group, he prefers to avoid.

Like Brennan, Cline is a highly flexible player. Both are able to play anywhere on the continuum from very straight to completely free; and like Brennan, Cline always manages to sound like himself. His swinging ride cymbal or textural effects never sound like hack-work, but his contribution does make this a more conventionally jazzy ensemble than Pago Libre.

As for Brennan himself, there are other places to hear his piano-playing undiluted, but it's good to hear him working with groups in this way. Although not in the least domineering, he underpins both sessions with the sensitivity and surety of touch which he brings to all of his projects. Whether comping changes or embellishing a solo with pretty arpeggios or skull-rattling clusters, his is a strong hand on the tiller which steers both ensembles through some difficult waters. These are both enormously agreeable discs of challenging jazz compositions performed by top-notch musicians.

Dr. Richard Cochrane, «Musings», London


«MUSINGS», London, November 1999

Pago Libre: Wake Up Call – Live in Italy

(Leo Records CD LR 272)
Tscho Theissing (violin, voice), Arkady Shilkloper (french horn, flugelhorn), John Wolf Brennan (piano, melodica), Daniele Patumi (double bass)

Brennan/Coleman/Wolfarth: Momentum

(Leo Records CD LR 274)
John Wolf Brennan (piano, prepared piano, melodica), Gene Coleman (bass clarinet), Christian Wolfarth (percussion)


Two releases on Leo; one an opportunity to hear an established group in a live setting, the other a new grouping and a step into what seems to be a new compositional direction for Brennan.

Pago Libre are, like many groups, even hotter in concert than they are in the studio. The sense of headlong rush, driven by nervous excitement, with which the disc opens does cool off from time to time, but it rarely vanishes; this group's intelligent, highly committed vision of jazz, complete with heads, changes, and solos, is quite unlike anyone else's.

Some of these compositions are ones which have been recorded before – "Wake up Call" and "Toccatacca", and the cerebral, seemingly through-composed ballad "Tupti-Kulai". It's interesting to hear them re-interpreted. "Wake up Call" and "Tupti Kulai" retain the arrangements which Pago Libre committed to disc on CDLR45105, a joint release by Leo Records and Bellaphon from 1996. Meanwhile, "Toccatacca" and "Kabak", recorded by the quintet «Shooting Stars and Traffic Lights» on their eponymous 1995 album, get fresh new arrangements to account for the slightly different instrumentation of Pago Libre.

Those interested in the individual musicians will find more information in the reviews of these two previous disks; Theissing, Shilkloper and Patumi are extraordinary musicians ideally suited to Brennan's fusion of bebop, free jazz, improv and world folk. Take Theissing's introduction to "Kabak"; a four-minute firey furnace of Indo-Jewish impro-jazz which builds towards the foot-stomping theme and has the audience begging for more.

As for the compositions which haven't been committed to mica before, they have much in common with the pieces with which they share the bill. Patumi's "African Blossom" is clearly a variation on his previous "African Flower", although more diffuse, a sophisticated and delicate duet with Theissing's violin. Shilkloper's "Folk Song" is a solo cadenza of almost discursive clarity, while "Kobra" is another convoluted thread which the musicians play as if it were "Body and Soul"; it isn't, and it constantly twists and turns in unexpected directions. "Synopsis", meanwhile, is a more sedate variation on the "Wake up Call" model, with its sweet harmonies and punchy rhythms, this time with a rather sectional arrangement of solos.

Pago Libre live are evidently well worth catching, a well-drilled team which has existed for over a decade, playing a music which is simultaneously nostalgic and futuristic.

In contrast, the trio of Brennan, Gene Coleman and Christian Wolfarth is new, spikey and exploratory project. While Pago Libre has the benefit of time to create something honed, this trio has the alternate virtue of not seeming to know quite what will happen next. The disk documents what is referred to as "comprovisations in a vertical circle". Attempting to disentangle John Corbetts pretentiously obfuscating liner notes (bad news: he seems to have rediscovered Deleuze and Guattari from his grad-school days, folks; the logorrhea may never cease), it seems that there is some compositional element here, influenced by Stockhausen's conception of "moment form". The truth is that Wolfarth and Coleman are both free improvisors, with little background (as far as this writer is aware) in score interpretation, and the truth is that this sounds like a free improv album even if it's not.

The format is four duets and six trios. Of the duets, Brennan appears on two and his colleagues on three each (you work it out). Wolfarth is a percussionist in the Han Bennink school, pushing home the uneven pulses of this shifting music with still a vestige of jazz swing under his fingernails.

There are moments when he seems only interested in texture, but they don't last long. Wolfarth's desire to ride the waves is too strong. He even, on "To hoo wa bo hoo", briefly strikes up a Blakey-style paradiddle which one half-expects to turn into "Blues March". That puts him in a strong tradition of free players, although this writer finds that attachment to jazz can sometimes be a problem. However, this trio seems interested specifically in forming a connection between free jazz as played by, say, the Jimmy Guiffre trio, and the more ascetic forms of chamber improv which are now fairly common. There is a chilliness here which is very appealing, although it takes some getting used to. One could refer to it as "cold school"; it takes some of the supposedly glacial austerity of Northern European composers like Magnus Lindberg and applies it to the premise of chamber jazz.

That makes for an extremely interesting record, and a very varied one, as the three try out different strategies for making this music which is quite unlike anything else, what with the unorthodox instrumentation, the unique approaches of the players and the overall feel of the project being resolutely non-partisan.

Dr. Richard Cochrane, «Musings», London


«MUSINGS», London, October 2000

Hans Kennel / John Wolf Brennan: p i p e l i n e s

(Leo Records CD LR 292)
Hans Kennel (trumpet, alphorn), John Wolf Brennan (pipe organ), Marc Unternährer (tuba)

Ernesto Diaz-Infante: S o l u s

(Pax Recordings: PR 90250)
Ernesto Diaz-Infante (piano)

Ernesto Diaz-Infante is a pianist and guitarist of remarkably catholic tastes. Last year he released a fearsomely noisy electric guitar record and a quiet, Feldman-inspired set of piano pieces. Here he's back with the piano, but the mood is much more restless and the overall feel far more technically assured. Superficially, there's a common note here with Howard Riley, in that this music has a rolling rhythm which is driven by distorted, elasticated boogie-woogie bass lines topped by zingy dissonances. But the difference is that this isn't really very jazzy music; it sounds far more indebted to classicism, and the cool breeze of Diaz-Infante's previous disk blows through this session, too. There may be many ragtime strategies in this music, but they're borrowed and translated just like Tatum translated classical music into jazz.

Harmonically there are some very clever things going on here – Diaz-Infante has either a cunning ear or some kind of theoretical thing going on, as many of these pieces make perfect sense in terms of functional harmony, another oddly classical concept which is a million miles away from the free jazz this resembles on the surface. Just one complaint: there are thirteen tracks here, all of moderate length, and it would have been nice to hear how these ideas would work over a longer time-scale.

John Wolf Brennan is also a pianist known for his eclecticism, and here he has translated himself onto a church organ for the purposes of playing something somewhere in between baroque music and jazz. Kennel is the perfect partner in such a project; his trumpet is brilliant and bright, sharp and clear, just as it should be for this music of fanfares. Eschewing strong dissonances, this duo instead reach for harmonic nuances and the sound of a big baroque church celebration transported en masse into the twenty-first century. They're joined by Unternahrer's tuba for just four tracks, and his uneasy parp pushes them into slightly edgier waters. This is music you really have to listen to: it creates an aura of pleasing-enough sound, and that's all you hear if it's on in the background. Only close-up do their cleverly intertwined lines really emerge. What's more, the very weirdness of this project can overpower the music the first time you hear it. But there's real musical intelligence under that it's-better-than-it-sounds exterior.

Brennan and Kennel have managed to take a powerfully classical paradigm and inject, rather gently, some elements of jazz into it, creating an improvised music of some complexity out of an unpromising culture clash. In a quite different way, Ernesto Diaz-Infante is using classical and jazz strategies together to create a cerebral but also rather inviting piano music. Classical-jazz crossovers? Nu-cool? Maybe, but two more different results of such cross-fertilisation would be hard to some by.

Dr. Richard Cochrane, «Musings», London

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