John Wolf Brennan

Creative Works CW 1046/1047

By Ken Waxman

Proof, if more were needed, that a composer's apprenticeship can last longer than he or she imagines at the time, is I.N.I.T.I.A.L.S., a two-CD cross section of Irish-Swiss pianist John Wolf Brennan's recordings from 1979 to 1991.

During the past ten years, in solo performances and with all-star bands such as Momentum and Pago Libre, Brennan has shown himself a master of a distinctive European sound that, while drawing on both improv and notated sources, isn't quite jazz, yet isn't so-called classical either. But the route to mastery would seem to involve as long a journey to enlightenment as that experienced by a Buddhist monk—using the twenty-nine selections here as guide.

The tunes range through Celtic miniatures involving different-sized recorders; pop-jazz fusion songs, replete with electric guitars and bass guitars; excursions into so-called World music; and a couple that brush against cabaret sounds. There's some memorable improvisation as well, but the majority of the early pieces on the first disc qualify as juvenilia.

Involving three differently sized configurations, the pieces are very much of their time—the early 1980s. It's when prog rock riffs make common cause with naïve folksiness, drum backbeats reference hard rock, and the polyphonic horn lines are closer to Blood, Sweat and Tears. There are stabs at country dance rhythms and humour, but the apprentice composer wasn't yet familiar enough with different musical forms to mock them. He is finding his way as a pianist: when Brennan turns jazzy he seems to need a walking bass line keep him steady—the way a dog needs a leash. 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 band rather than, say, an appreciation of Machito.

Proceedings pick up immeasurably on the second CD, as Brennan is involved in duos or groups with some of Switzerland's most accomplished players—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, although the saxman studs the pieces with abrasive split tones and squeaks. However, "Rebecca's Song," the pair's most affecting duet, finds Blöchlinger spinning out skittering melody scraps and Brennan busy arpeggios, as if they 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 larger bands, introduce the penultimate stages in the pianist's evolution to musical maturity. The guitarist's pin-pointed, single-string snaps and fills bring out McCoy Tyner-like modal patterning from the pianist. Additionally, Leimgruber's vibrato-laden growls robustly combine with Doran's stuttering feedback guitar fills to such an extent that Brennan's touch toughens and his output becomes more pressured.

Finally, on "Mountain Songline II: Windaelle," a live 1988 saxophone-piano duet, Leimgruber appears to be casting off the growling hard blowing of his fusion days and working towards the improv minimalism he concentrates on today. As Leimgruber's reed biting gives way to blowing coloured air through his horn's body tube, Brennan creates tight, weighty patterns that involve the soundboard as much as the keys, climaxing in a contrapuntal finale between the two.

All that remains was for the last piece to fall into place, which it does in the1991 selections from a twelve-piece band featuring Lars Lindvall's plunger trumpet and vocalist Gabriele Hasler. Brennan has overcome the obvious fusion clichés of 1979. Humour is now appended to his mature multi-musical style, as the group deals fluidly with a recreation of the Beatles' "Fool on the Hill" that floats a pseudo art-song on a jiggling reggae beat. While the first disc is engrossing for longtime followers of Brennan's career, most will prefer the mature conception on the second disc.