|Richard Cook and Brian Morton:|
The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD
7th edition, London 2004
John Wolf Brennan
PIANO, KEYBOARDS, ELECTRONICS, COMPOSER
An Irishman who has been based on the continent for many years, Brennan
utterly distinctive touch at the keyboard and is the composer of
intensely beautiful themes which are almost impossible to locate
*** 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
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
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).
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.
Leo CD LR 274 Brennan; Gene Coleman (bcl), Christian Wolfarth
*** 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 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.
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.
Leo CD LR 373 Brennan; Peggy Lee (clo); Dylan van der Schyff (d,
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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