Patrick Brennan: Rhythms of Passion

Ludwig vanTrikt By

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It might seem paradoxical to transfer what's convivial, collective music into the solo process. But, if you're feeling a conception, and no compatriots can go along with you at that moment--you either go on by yourself or you don't go there at all.
Since moving to New York City in 1975, one-time bassist/painter Patrick Brennan has crafted a musical path that is open in its candor and indebtedness to all facets of black music. Much like trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, the alto saxophonist brews a thicket of his own distinct musical language that "unlike much contemporaneous vanguard music is built specifically upon the potentialities of swinging and polyrhythm."

For the astute lay person this means moving the expressive expansiveness of trap playing and the drum choir into "the foreground of an entire orchestra's intelligence."

But none of this captures Brennan's subtle humor and wit.

All About Jazz: Please describe yourself.

Patrick Brennan: Ah, that's always a tricky one. Beats me. I did finally learn, about 15 years ago, that if you don't tell people what you're doing yourself, people can come up with the craziest descriptions (often wrong or negative) of what you do. I've learned to write highfalutin descriptions myself because you have to compete with Euro-classical music and all that just to get a door gig these days. And if you can't talk about how famous you are, you gotta talk about the music itself.

I think of myself as a composer first, then bandleader, then saxophonist, and specifically as a composer for improvisers. Call me independent. I've never been part of any group or style. I've been trying to develop something specifically my own. I don't dig stereotypes, stereotypical music or people. I like Duke Ellington's notion of "beyond category." I'm looking to get the creative most out of practices that have developed in black music—that's jazz, African, R&B, blues, Latin, whateva'—and in any other music, if the shoe fits.

I don't know what other people think, but I think of the music as avant-garde in the sense that it's different shit that stretches what people are used to, but it's not that 50 year-old style of imitating [John Coltrane's] Ascension (Impulse!, 1965) that's still called avant-garde. Just to be clear, I really like Charles Gayle, for example, but most people aren't improvising at that level. Unlike a lot of what are called avant-garde approaches, I really dig swinging rhythms, but I'm also trying to stretch that stuff as far as imagination will go.

So, the music includes what's in free music, bebop, Euro-classical concepts and African musics, but it isn't exactly any one of those things. It's my own thing, not an eclectic blend of styles, yet it is an expansion on how those musics think. In fact, it's not a style but a way. And the music sounds how it does because of the way it comes from. The way comes first, then the sound. I guess you could call it a unique or personal musical language. Another good hook might be my word metagroove, which describes the way I work with the ways that different grooves can bounce off each other. The music is drum oriented, even if there's no drummer or obvious beat. Some of the cats who've related to music in the kinds of ways I'm identifying as composer/bandleader/players who made their own musical worlds would be Duke, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Henry Threadgill, Sun Ra, the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Steve Lacy, and Steve Coleman.

I'm never very satisfied with describing music, so I've kept thinking over that question of how I'd "describe myself musically." Really, I pay more attention to the in betweens in music. And I'm not into fitting into a "style"—which of course makes it hard for somebody reading about a musician to get any idea at all of what she's doing—but everyone has a "way," which eventually comes out sounding like a style. I'm really more concerned with the way than the style.

The other day I came across a description of what in science is called a "black box." Basically, from the outside, you can see what's going in and you can see what's coming out but you don't have any real idea of what's going on inside. Those are the kinds of things we accept as "realities" or "facts" or "styles," like "jazz,"' or whatever as if everyone already knows what it is, but they really don't. I think that's one reason so many musicians have said "just call it music." The thing is inside what looks like a "black box" is a whole bunch of unsettled, uncertain and diverse elements all networked together. My interests are with playing around with the connections that might lead to such a black box like "jazz." In other words, I'm attracted to working with questions and ideas that are not settled. That's where the discoveries are. What would you call that kind of music? Hard to say, but you know what it sounds like, and I think that's where most really creative shit comes from.

There's another funny thing. A recording of Charlie Parker could sound exactly like a recording of someone doing an exact imitation of the solo with no invention at all. In theory, they could sound exactly the same, but they still wouldn't be the same music.

AAJ: I believe you initially came on the scene as a leader of your own band, as opposed to having done an apprenticeship with other artists?

PB: : I suppose it was as a leader, although I was also playing with whomever I could. While there were musicians who definitely helped me as mentors and examples, I also found that if I wanted to grow at a certain level, I'd have to do that on my own. So, instead of waiting for somebody else to make that happen, I went and formed my own group, which I would have done eventually anyway.

AAJ: Are you suggesting that the musical and social environment for an avant-garde musician in New York was not very accommodating when you first arrived on the scene?

PB: No. It's hard for a musician to realistically expect accommodation. Money lives on Wall Street. Fame belongs to media. Music can only promise music. It's a real gift when any musician manages to live just through one's work. I found the scene very exciting when I arrived in New York City in 1975. Places like Studio Rivbea and the Tin Palace always let me in—broke or not. The level of creativity and musicianship I witnessed daily was both inspiring and admonishingly humbling. New York can certainly function to remind an artist just how much work one has yet to do.

AAJ: Even your website does not delve much into your Detroit beginnings; please talk about your youth in the Motor City?

PB: My father was a musical enthusiast—played good six-string thumb position rhythm guitar in the late '30s—picked up the bass in the '40s, which kept him out of combat in the military. It was at most a weekend thing when I arrived, but I heard plenty of Louis Armstrong and Count Basie recordings as a little kid.

I saw Eddie Harris on TV playing Exodus to Jazz (VeeJay, 1961) when I was six years old. That gave me saxophone fever, but I never got a horn till I was 17. I tried clarinet a couple of times in grade school, but just couldn't cover the holes enough when I was that young. A new school in 6th grade got me drafted into playing trombone. The school had a great teacher who taught me how to transpose, and they set aside daily practice time, which meant that I actually practiced and learned how to play. A couple of years after that, my father gave me his guitar, and a year later, his bass.

He lived elsewhere, so my listening sources had become primarily radio— Motown, Rock—stuff like that. I spent a whole summer listening to isolated tracks of a The Beatles LP, which taught me how music was put together, and I began composing. One piece got played by my school band, and in 9th grade I wrote something for a brass quintet that went into state competition. Also, my buddy, Mickey MacKenzie, showed up with a huge collection of Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Eric Dolphy. That became daily fare. Then I began to reach out to whatever different music I could find—the more different the better. And there was a lot of it in any genre or from any country at the time—all kinds of paradigm shifting surprises.

The years '68 to '72, after which I went to college, seem as important as Detroit itself. At that time I was no more than a big-eared, shy wallflower just discovering music and instruments. A contagious avant-garde ethic seemed to saturate the air, even if this was for sure, in retrospect, a minority attitude. "Avant-Garde," however, was more a way than the style the term seems to designate now. I was also exploring the literary, visual and theatrical arts, doing multimedia happenings, musique concrete. I was all over the place!

Detroit was very independent-minded while accepting second fiddle to none, and continues an important attitudinal and conceptual influence on me. People did their own things their own way—take it or leave it. Drummer Bud Spangler spread Coltrane's late music on WDET with news of local music. At the Ibo Cultural Center I got invited to play at bassist Ubadiah Bey Obay's house up on North Ardmore in Pontiac— "Hey, European brother." I didn't understand what he was talking about, but we loved the music.

This was a weekly gathering of nearly all self taught musicians who were emulating the high energy collective improvisations of Coltrane and Albert Ayler. They adopted me like family and included me in whatever they did, and we've shared that connection ever since, wherever I've gone. There was a strong devotional quality to how they were playing. They also connected with another group of Muslims doing the same thing down in the Cass corridor—equally welcoming and supportive—but more explicitly theistic, which was something I didn't fit in with quite so comfortably.

The musician-run Strata Concert Gallery had the deepest impact on me. I heard Archie Shepp there with Dan Spencer and Sadiq Abdushahid [Archie Taylor Jr.] together on traps. I've never recovered from that two drum sound. Ornette played there with Ed Blackwell and Charlie Haden—still one of the most elevated listening experiences I've ever had. The CJQ, which included [pianist] Kenny Cox, [trumpeter] Charles Moore, [tenor saxophonist] Leon Henderson and [bassist] Ron Brooks, along with Spencer, sliced Detroit's cutting edge.

Detroit's genius seems to have been time. These cats were structuring blocks of differently inflected motion. Tempos would seem to speed up and slow down. Time would flow in recurrent arcs: backward, hovering, gushing forward. It wasn't all intuitive or free. It was a self-aware, deliberate application of structure. Spencer's drumming was exuberant and volcanic, and their interaction was seasoned enough to afford an elegant egalitarianism. Of course, I didn't understand what they were doing, but I could feel it, and from that I developed even stronger appetites for deep rhythm.

AAJ: Did you have any other formal musical training? What about the bass, which you also played?

PB: I went to Thomas Jefferson College, a since closed small experimental college in western Michigan that was part of Grand Valley State—very, very inexpensive, very open and very interesting if you took advantage of what was possible there. The music department consisted of Bob Shechtman, a New York area trombonist and bassist who also practiced Euro-classical composition. He was iconoclastic and a real polymath with tremendous enthusiasm. Music was only one of many interests in my playbook at the time, but on a whim I looked into composition classes with him, which he gave one on one. I had no idea that he wasn't adding any new students at the time, but he took me on immediately.

The first assignment he gave me was to design a piece of music. I thought the man was out of his mind, but I went along with it and came back with a bunch of shapes drawn on score paper. He then made suggestions based on those shapes and through the dialogue of his weekly critiques a composition gradually evolved. About four months into that process, my mind went "pop!" I got it. I've been serious about music ever since.

He had to cajole me into his theory class, but once he got me to sit in on one, I was spellbound. We did all the basic European stuff—canonic writing, etc., but Bob explored all this outside the sanctimonious correctness so endemic in most formal music departments. In the middle of a two-hour session analyzing a single measure of Beethoven, he'd drop a needle down on a Duke Ellington record and ask everyone to listen to the bass drum—and for good reason too. For him music was music and musicians were musicians. No differences—a very liberating head.

He'd also heard me on bass trying out some jumble of Charlie Haden with Gary Peacock's way of playing with Ayler. After that, he kept me after every class to play his bass while he played piano insisting that I play the damned roots of the changes in quarter notes and "Lay back! Relax! Listen!" I did do a little bit of private study on saxophone and on the bass while I was in school as well. All in all, I left school not so much with well developed skills, but with great conceptual tools, much of which I also owe to Basil King, with whom I studied painting, that have since served me well. I've been able to study and learn on my own. And just before I left for New York, I was also strongly affected by a two-day workshop that Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell presented at Kalamazoo College.

In New York, I did a year at Jazzmobile with John Stubblefield, Frank Foster, Jimmy Heath and Frank Wess. When I hit a wall in my development some years later, I went to Stubblefield for a lesson about twice a year for a couple years—a great mentor, a generous man and a fantastic musician. I was lucky to know him. And that's all the formal study I've done. But the informal learning from musicians on and off the bandstand has been even more informative and important.

The bass fed me through school; got me most of my paying work in New York and introduced me to lots of musicians. Saxophonist Marvin Blackman, who was my most important informal teacher and mentor, hired me quite a bit, usually for the bottom dollar gigs, but I was an apprentice who was learning so much that that didn't matter. I love rhythm sections and I adore the instrument, but I can understand why Mingus would want to slug a sideman: it's very hard to lead a band from a bass. The instrument is also physically very unforgiving, and you need to practice a lot just to keep your strength available.

When my gigs narrowed down to piano bar gigs playing massacred standards, and the neck snapped on the bass in '84; I thought twice about investing in the repair. However, every time I've dropped one activity, the others have become stronger. I'd stopped painting about five years before, which opened up a lot more concentration for music; and putting the bass aside, for me, opened up more space for the composing and the saxophone. I've never stopped hearing the bass in my hands though, nor thinking like a painter for that matter.
About Patrick Brennan
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