Patrick Brennan: Rhythms of Passion
AAJ: One of my first memories of your music was your recording Soup (Deep Dish, 1983), and pianist James Weidman being part of the group's photo. He was and you were both so young looking; would he be a good example of someone bringing a contrasting style to that group?
From left: Patrick Brennan, Lisle Ellis
PB: Weidman's a very intelligent, well informed, capable musician, with an acute understanding of compositional form and wicked musical wit. A lot of people might not know that he's also very well versed in Euro-classical music. We met in the '70s as occasional members of Jo Jones Jr.'s rhythm section at his weekly jam session at Barbara's on West 3rd Street. James would also come over all the time to play at my loft on West 25th Street, which took advantage of a 24/7 potential for jam sessions, rehearsals and working out original music. The bands that recorded my first two albums formed around people there who could both enjoy and hang with my compositional experiments. Weidman could take anything I'd come up with and run with it. He plays like James Weidman, which is what he's supposed to do.
AAJ: Your website has elements of what amounts to a musical manifesto, in that it contains some of the basic ideas that form your musical approach. One of the statements which you make reflects almost your mixed emotions about playing "free." Please elaborate?
PB: I wasn't there, but I've often wondered if one of the underlying reasons that so many musicians, such as Roy Eldridge, got so upset with Ornette Coleman's music at first was that it took away a freedom. It did away with a lingua franca that, for more than 30 years, had potentially allowed any capable musician to sit in with any band on the spot. That was the shared matrix of standard tunes and their repeating chord cycles. I think they functioned, not as "compositions" (because improvising is the actual compositional decision process at play), but as interactive matrices that gave an ensemble a common web of convergence points. Ornette's band composed as would any other jazz ensemble, but its matrix was much more particularized. Not just anybody could play that music. It required a more specialized knowledge, and in that sense his music seems to me to be much more compositional than it is jam session.
Technically, to "play free" means to compose without a chordal or modal grid, and there's an awful lot of music that can be arrived at only that way. Opening up a wider palette of options for each individual deeply changes how ensembles coordinate themselves; and the communication networks within a band can't be quite so easily assumed as in standard formats. The extended languages of Cecil Taylor, Sam Rivers or Steve Lacy developed through very gradual evolutions; and it's more complicated still to construct this level of coherence as an ensemble. These relationships within an ensemble aren't at all trivial. The connective tissue in Ornette's early groups grew through a combination of the concepts he shared with each player and their common experience with bebop. The Art Ensemble of Chicago's collective improvisations are rooted in routines of very intensive rehearsal. And even a regular ensemble of free improvisers develops its own compositional matrix out of an accumulation of shared experiences. Each of these is a very distinct musical setting with its own very unique kind of order.
What I'm ambivalent about is crossing free improvisation and the jam session within an assumption that this is all you'll ever need. Ensemble free playing can gather around lowest common denominators every bit as clichéd and stereotyped as other standardized formats, and to adopt this as a compositional default mode leaves out possibilities that I'd prefer to keep in playsuch as unison textures and more intricate sonic and conceptual interlocks. An endless context where absolutely anything could conceivably happen anytime gets a little wide for my attention span. It doesn't really push me enough to outdo myself. I'm more drawn to the tensions and suspense of tighter weaves of probability and the creative alertness this invokes in collective improvisation. There's something special about a group stretching into a very particular sonic spectrum and thought stream together.
I'm also fascinated by multiple rhythmic levels: by long thoughts developing over years that intersect with immediate interactions and then splay across more gradually unfolding ideas. This mixes long deliberation with instant spontaneity. Purely free playing tends toward shallower horizons than that, but so much depends on the people involved. If I'm working with somebody else's initiative, I'll go with whatever that may be. But on my own, I tend to find mixed strategies much more interesting to work with, which I also hope are more transparent for listeners.