John Wolf Brennan

Creative Works

Pago Libre
Stepping Out
Leo Records

Momentum 4
Rising Fall
Leo Records

By Ken Waxman
May 15, 2006

Although Irish-Swiss pianist John Wolf Brennan is now in the enviable position of having several extant working bands and many other one-off aggregations, not every one of his endeavors flourishes.

This becomes perceptibly apparent when you compare the discs recorded within a month of one another in 2004 by two of his contemporary quartets, Pago Libre and Momentum 4. Even more illustrative are the 29 selections on I.N.I.T.I.A.L.S. Consisting of tracks from 1979 to 1991, the two-CD set shows Brennan inching towards a distinctive European sound that draws from both improv and notated sources. Yet some of the missteps here suggest that the route to mastery involves as long a journey to enlightenment as experienced by a novice Buddhist monk.

The tunes range from Celtic miniatures showcasing different-sized recorders; to pop-jazz fusion replete with electric six-string and bass guitars; to excursions into so-called World music; plus a couple that are even more problematic. Sadly, most of the early pieces on disc one qualify as juvenilia.

Involving three differently sized configurations, the tunes reflect their early 1980s origin. That was a time when ProgRock riffs make common cause with naïve folksiness, drum backbeats reference Hard Rock more than jazz, and the polyphonic horn lines are closer to Blood, Sweat and Tears then Willem Breuker’s Kollektief or any contemporary improv ensemble. There are self-conscious stabs at European country dance rhythms and humor – again like Breuker. Additionally there’s a bit of a Spanish tinge on some tracks, but that appears to result from an emulation of Chick Corea’s Return for Forever rather than, say, an appreciation of Machito.

Unfortunately, the apprentice composer wasn’t familiar enough with terpsichorean forms to give his ensembles enough freedom to play them, nor comfortable enough with the intricacies of different musical genres to mock them. Also finding his way as a pianist at the same time, when Brennan turns jazzy on these early tracks, like a puppy on a leash, he seems to need a walking bass line keep him steady.

Proceedings pick up immeasurably on CD2, as Brennan is involved in duos or bands with some of Switzerland’s most accomplished players – including alto saxophonist Urs Blöchlinger and tenor saxophonist Urs Leimgruber – plus fellow Irish-Swiss guitarist Christy Doran and British drummer Steve Argüelles.

Still overtly concerned with prettiness in his 1982 duets with Blöchlinger, at least Brennan’s multi-fingered syncopation adds mass to the tunes at the same time as the saxman studs the pieces with abrasive split tones and squeaks. However “Rebecca’s Song”, the most affecting duet, finds Blöchlinger spinning out skittering melody scraps and Brennan busy with arpeggios, as if the two were Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges working through a contrafact of “Ol’ Man River”.

Meetings in the late 1980s with Doran and Leimgruber in duet or in combos, introduce the penultimate stages in the pianist’s evolution to musical maturity. The guitarist’s pin-pointed, single-string snaps bring out McCoy Tyner-like modal patterning from the pianist. In addition, Leimgruber’s vibrato-laden growls robustly combine with Doran’s stuttering feedback to such an extent that odd-man-out Brennan must toughen his touch and exert more pressure with his output.

Finally, on “Mountain Songline II: Windaelle”, a live 1988 saxophone-piano duet, Leimgruber – who was also discovering his mature style – casts off the growling hard blowing of his fusion days and aims decisively towards the improv minimalism he concentrates on today. As Leimgruber’s reed biting gives way to blowing colored air through his horn’s body tube, Brennan creates tight, weighty patterns that involve the soundboard as much as the keys, climaxing contrapuntally.

All that remains is for the last piece to fall into place which it does in the 1991 selections from a 12-piece band featuring Lars Lindvall’s plunger trumpet and vocalist Gabriele Hasler. Brennan has finally overcome the obvious fusion clichés of 1979 and understands musical humor. To confirm this, the group fluidly recreates the Beatles’ “Fool on the Hill” as a pseudo art song performed on top of a jiggling reggae beat.

Formalism, humor and experimentation are on show on Stepping Out and Rising Fall, with both eschewing percussionists. It’s been that way since the Pago Libre quartet first got together in 1989, although at this point only Brennan is left of the musicians whose names gave the band its acronymic name. Vienna-resident Tscho Theissing, who plays with different contemporary music ensembles as well as improvises such as American flautist James Newton, joined soon afterwards; and in 1994, Russian Arkady Shilkloper, who plays French horn, alphorn and flugelhorn on this CD, and who has been in the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra added his talents. Just recently Austrian bassist Georg Breinschmid, whose experience encompasses the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra as well as the Vienna Art Orchestra, took the bass chair. Breinschmid’s jazz-oriented sense of time comes in handy on Stepping Out since it pulls the others away from neo-minimalist experimentation.

Regrettably that doesn’t happen with the other band on Rising Fall, with too may of the 14 selections almost bagatelles – concerned with which of the horn men can blow most abstractly. Unlike Brennan as well, the wind and brass players also appear more comfortable on the legit side of the fence. Sopranino and contrabass saxophonist Thomas K.J. Mejer from Lucerne, for instance, in involved with a trio for very low wind instruments and electronic music. Chicago-based bass clarinetist Gene Coleman founded the New music group Ensemble Noamnesia; and tubaist Marc Unternährer moves between classical modernism and contemporary improvisation, including membership in appropriately-named The Chicago Luzern Exchange with three Chi-town players.

With its cacophony of whistling flute-like tones, irregular snorts and flutter tonguing “Darkroom” seems to relate back to some of Brennan’s medieval-styled japes of decades ago. But at least here the double counterpoint recorder-like sound of the reeds is interrupted by tuba snorts and ringing slaps on the piano’s internal strings. Among the reed swirls and pinched unisons tones that characterize many of the other pieces, molasses-slow keyboard strumming doesn’t shake the mood. “Hands On”, for example is built on repeated high-pitches from one reedist and crowing rooster sounds from the other. Pedal point blasts from Unternährer’s tuba and arpeggios spilling from the keyboard don’t do much to lighten the mood. “It Will End in Tears” is more of the same, with circular reed trills, what appears to be breaths pulled inward from the tuba mouthpiece alone, and watery piano interface predominating.

The four append a lame joke about an electron walking into a bar in the final seconds of “Betty’s Blue Star Lounge”. But despite this attempt at color, not to mention the sound of unattached reed whistles, frog-like brass snorts and low-frequency piano cadences, like much of the rests of the disc, the track is categorically monochromatic. Adding a hoary witticism to the instrumental sounds is like trying to use a sexually explicit joke to break the ice at a scientific conference. Humor in music is difficult enough to attain, as Brennan demonstrated with I.N.I.T.I.A.L.S. Jokes should be left to professional comics.

Likely because of the other band’s shared history, a higher percentage of the 11 compositions on Stepping Out are more memorable than what Momentum 4 attempts. However, when Theissing’s slowly stroked, legato-sounding violin or Skilkoper’s overly mellow French horn take centre stage, the pieces slant a little too far towards formalism.

More stirring are those tracks where Breinschmid’s woody bass line and powerfully voiced piano fills from Brennan predominate. At points, this combination stirs Theissing to crisscross near-Stuff-Smith-like spiccato. Moreover when slap bass and dynamic piano riffs complement Skilkoper’s alp horn reverberation on “Alpine Sketch”, the bouncy, near rococo, phrases reference the lilt of a primitive American spasm band.Because of this looseness even “Intrada”, the CD’s Skilkoper-composed 14½-minute magnum opus doesn’t drag as much as some of Rising Fall more pretentious efforts. Introduced by a melancholy, slow-paced French horn part and buzzing strings in broken octaves, Brennan’s piano adds a full-fledged chamber baroque section. With the walking bass inserting a jazz fillip, the fiddler is soon playing twisted, near-Klezmer lines. A primary climax of sul ponticello sawing from Breinschmid and open palm keyboard weight gives way to a col legno section from the strings that diminishes to screeches. As the robust bass beat is recapped, the violin’s pizzicato echoing serve as the finale.

Squeaking in muffled voices in order to approximate the key figures in the jokey “Resende Gnome (Version Snuebeck C 32)”, this band is able to add the sort of humor aimed for but missed in other Brennan projects. When the pianist appears to be trying to play the overture of an opera buffa – or the music from a 1920s silent cartoon – and the other contribute honks, snuffles, plinks and pops, the results almost make up for many of the missteps on this disc and others.

Intriguing with his numerous and assorted projects, Brennan has become a unique and perhaps major musical figure. As these CDs demonstrate though, you have to carefully pick and choose among his work to be fully satisfied.