The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD
7th edition, London 2004

Richard Cook and Brian Morton:
The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD
7th edition, London 2004

John Wolf Brennan


An Irishman who has been based on the continent for many years, Brennan has an
utterly distinctive touch at the keyboard and is the composer of complex but
intensely beautiful themes which are almost impossible to locate stylistically.

*** Text, Context, Co-Text & Co-Co-Text

Creative Works CW 1025 Brennan (p solo). 94.

A broodingly thoughtful album containing music as imaginatively self-referential as the title might suggest. Almost every piece seems to be a mediation on ist own origins, tightly wrapped into one or two basically simple ideas. There is one piece for prepared piano, deployed intelligently and with great feeling. It comes a little unexpectedly in the middle of the session, which one finds oneself listening to almost in a trance. Delightful music for the mind and the heart.

*** Moskau-Petuschki / Felix-Szenen

Leo Lab CD 034 Brennan; Lars Lindvall (t, flhn); Martin Mayes (hn, v); Marin Namestnik, Tscho Theissing (vn); Daniele Patumi (b); Oscar Bingisser, Liana Schwanja (v). 7/94, 6/95.

Two superb theatre-pieces inspired by the work of Wenedikt Jerofejew and Robert Walser respectively, Moskau-Petuschki and Felix-Szenen take Brennan a further step along the road. Jerofejew was an alcoholic who wrote only incidentally, and yet his work has a dreamed magnificence one would simply not find in a writer more literary and aware. Brennan’s “micromonotonal“ poem is broodingly beautiful, not so much intense as highly focused, with the heightened perception one might associate with drunkenness (the poet’s not the composer’s!).
We find the Walser material less immediately compelling, a somewhat different sound-world despite the similarity of instrumentation – violin, trumpet, piano and bass, as against violin, horn, piano and bass for the Jerofejew piece – and a more openly expressive setting that lacks the prismatic exactness of the earlier piece.

**** The Well-Prepared Clavier

Creative Works 1032 Brennan (p, prepared p solo); Marianne Schroeder (p). 5/97.

Aside from a brief appearance by the magnificent Schroeder, this is a solo performance and a superb representation of Brennan’s extraordinary pianism. There are tributes to both Henry Cowell and John Cage, two of the inspirations behind Brennan’s extended technique. There are a number of studies for prepared piano here, coming in sequence in the middle of the session, and they are in some respects definitive of Brennan’s attempt to synthesize melody, mathematics and a kind of musical materialism that renders sound insignificant of anything other than itself. If that sounds an increasingly abstract exercise, don’t forget that melody is at the beginning and end of it. Also included on the album is a fulsome tribute to the late Russian genius Sergey Kuryokhin, and a wonderful thing called “Rump-L-Rumba” (7/4 for Five Hands), which is (almost) self-explanatory. A wonderful record.

**** ...Through The Ear Of A Raindrop

Leo CD LR 254 Brennan; Paul Rutherford (tb); Evan Parker (ts, ss), Peter Whyman (bcl); Chris Cutler (d, perc); Julie Tippetts (v). 7/97.

And, at last, the record we always knew he would make: a rich and vividly textured marriaged of poetry – Shakespeare, Poe, Heaney, Tom Paulin, Theo Dorgan and Paula Meehan, together with a poem by Julie Tippetts – and instruments. The three horns blend together wonderfully and unexpectedly, with Parker working in the quieter and less abrasive style that he occasionally brings to vocal accompaniments. Rutherford is a poet himself and is constantly responsive to the cadence an fall of words. Here he surpasses himself. Someone somewhere down the line should consider prising Julie away from home and a long-standing duo with the old man and getting her to record a duo with Brennan. He seems the ideal foil, the perfect yin-yang partner for her own wonderful synthesis of the everyday and the magical. On every track here they have things to communicate to one another, and the lilt and flow of Brennan’s piano playing is endlessly attractive.

***(*) Momentum

Leo CD LR 274 Brennan; Gene Coleman (bcl), Christian Wolfarth (perc). 10/98.

*** Momentum 2: The Law Of Refraction

Leo CD LR 296 As above, except add Alfred Zimmerlin (clo). 10/99.

*** Momentum 3

Leo CD LR 355 As above, except omit Coleman and Zimmerlin; add Bertrand Denzler (ts); Christian Weber (b). 01.

Momentum is a wonderfully confected group and a great outlet for Brennan’s distinctive approach. His prepared-piano sound sare very different from those deployed by, say, Keith Tippett; their strangeness is more unsettling. The first album kicks off wonderfully. In conjunction with percussion and then with bass clarinet on “Robots Don’t Cough” and “Poco Loco”, Brennan takes you into a realm which is almot beyond human music; if the record has a running thme, it is the disjunction between the human and the machine – even a machine as familiar as the piano and as humanely vocalized as the melodica. Wonderful stuff again from the Irishman.

The second album is not quite as unearthly. Whether the music really is an attempt to articulate principles of refraction in sound is a moot point and shouldn’t distract the listener. The addition of cello gives a richer and, in a curious way, a more percussive sonority to the group. “Simple Harmonic Motion” and the long “Standing Wave” are the best tracks on an album that wanders a bit, but which comes across with more energy and heat than the first.

The defection of Coleman was a disappointment and his bass clarinet sound is missed on the third album. However, Brennan has attempted to keep the same basic instrumentation, Weber’s bass being played with a lightness and speed that suggests cello. The track titles spell out the word “syntegration“, presumably a hybrid of “synthesis“ and “integration”. The group members seem intent on each other’s speech, listening almost politely and perhaps too consciously avoiding the log-jams of sounds that mare some improvised music. On the other hand, the ear sometimes creaves fo a bit more activity and a bit more detail.

**** Flügel

Creative Works 1037 Brennan (p solo). 11/98–1/02.

Brennan returns to the solo vein he explored on The Well-Prepared Clavier, but with a new confidence and richness of sound. This is intended as a further episode in a grand cycle of piano works and if the quality is maintained it will be one of the most important cycles of its kind in the modern repertoire. Flügel is of course the German term for grand piano, but Brennan typically reads it in a more expressive and metaphoric vein as well. Again the titles refer to scientific ideas (“String Theory”) or make gentle puns (“You Can’t Be Sirius!”), but this time there is a pair of meditations on medieval hymns and one can see Brennan moving further and more boldly in this direction. His technique is jaw-droppingly assured and wonderfully delicate with little of the bravura hammering that afflicts most post-Cecil Taylor piano improvisers.

***(*) Zero Heroes

Leo CD LR 373 Brennan; Peggy Lee (clo); Dylan van der Schyff (d, perc). 3/02.

Similar in many respects to the language of Momentum, but with yet another fresh new dimension in the wonderful cello playing of Peggy Lee. She is the key element in this set of light and almost skitting improvisations. Brennan is his normal astute and puckish self and van der Schyff is much more than a third wheel and much more than a colourist. He gives many of the pieces, which are of fairly uniform length and longer than usual for Brennan, a cast-iron structure and logic. Our only hesitation is that the album suffers from a touch too much uniformity overall. Further testimony, though, to Brennan’s remarkable imaginative scope.

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