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.


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