Release date: 2003/04
|Single CD (audio): GBP 10.00|
|( Collapse liner notes )|
So it is with Zero Heroes, the name he's given to this astonishing trio performance, with cellist Peggy Lee and drummer Dylan van der Schyff, recorded in Vancouver in March 2002. Sure, the title rhymes. And, as Brennan told me, it's also a cryptic and timely reference to the world after September 11th. ("There is zero need for heroism in the American cowboy sense: shoot first, then think. No beating about the Bush here...")
But Zero Heroes is, really, about the improviser's art: its impromptu events and matter-of-fact connections, its nuanced notion of freedom and nearly preternatural sense of form.
And it's also about how we the audience listen.
"Etymologically," Brennan explains, "the word "hero" is derived from the Greek, "heros", which means "a man of superhuman qualities, favoured by the gods, a demigod".
"If you believe in the fact that all good music can only survive and blossom with the receptive ears of a well-disposed audience (audience itself coming from the Latin, "to hear"), you have to abandon all myths of "heroic performers". "Therefore: zero heroes!"
Brennan continues. "Wolfgang Rihm, a German composer, has told us in a very convincing way just how important it is to have the open ears of an attentive audience. Without them, Rihm said, "the first and last notes coming out of the trombone will not even reach the stage floor before meeting their heroic death...not even a glimpse of a chance to ever reach the listener's ear and heart".
Certainly, if any situation in modern music demands this kind of fealty, it's the one you're now holding. Zero Heroes, you see, captures a first meeting, a one-off, a musical blind date initiated by Ken Pickering, artistic director of Vancouver's Coastal Jazz and Blues Society. And to my mind, there is no greater musical test than this: the unrehearsed, unscripted first encounter.
Sure, some things were prepared. Brennan arrived from Lucerne (the Dublin-born pianist has been based in Switzerland since the 60s) with a single composition, "Anyway, Was There Ever Nothing?" something he'd recently recorded on his solo album Flügel (Creative Works, 2002). The other pieces more like snippets of melodic material were written the day of the gig. The music was introduced during a brief rehearsal an hour before the concert.
Brennan explains. "Both pieces "Let It Find You" and "Western Front" were composed for this specific performance or, to be more precise, this specific lineup, with just some faint idea about the two musicians in mind. It was more like, as the Irish say, educated guesswork, because I had never met Dylan and Peggy before.
"You might also want to call it a high-risk venture".
You might, indeed. But then again, ever since the late-90s, musicians coming through Vancouver have sought out Lee and van der Schyff, a couple in all things musical and domestic. Their duo recording, These Are Our Shoes (Spool, 1998), and their recent appearance with Amsterdam-based reeds player Michael Moore, Floating 1...2...3 (Spool, 2002), are just two instances of how deeply they connect, without prearranged material of any kind.
They've also created a considerable body of work on their own. Lee's evocative, intelligent writing has been, since 1999, the feature of her self-named sextet, whose second album, Sounds from the Big House (Spool, 2002), came out last year. She's also remained an irreplaceable part of the city's new music scene, most notably in the ensemble Standing Wave. Van der Schyff, on the other hand, often works further afield, in ongoing collaborations with German pianist Achim Kaufmann, and on disc with English saxophonist John Butcher, Points, Snags and Windings (Meniscus, 2001), and the Americans, cornet player Rob Mazurek and bassist Jason Roebke, tigersmilk (Family Vineyard, 2003).
Brennan, of course, enters an improvised performance with all the right
baggage, too. His experiences are so rich and so varied from the
cooperative groups Pago Libre (with Tscho Theissing, Arkady Shilkloper, and
Daniele Patumi), Momentum (with Gene Coleman and Christian Wolfarth), and
Aurealis (with Robert Dick and Patumi) to his own HeXtet (with Julie
Tippetts, Evan Parker, Peter Whyman, Paul Rutherford and Chris Cutler)
that some might underrate his work in less formal, open settings. But just
listen to Time Jumps Space Cracks (Leo, 2002), his critically admired duo
recording with bassist Daniele Patumi, an extraordinary set of off-the-cuff
and predetermined acts that's turned up in a handful of end-of-the-year
Clearly, Brennan, Lee, and van der Schyff are instant composers of the highest order. That's why everything on Zero Heroes feels so permanent. Solitary events can often set a whole host of traps, and they avoid them all. These aren't long, unwieldy interactions. Nothing's didactic or fussy. Everything just flows with perfect balance and poise, even the subtle shifts in configuration, from a trio to duos to a pair of familiar solo piano segments "Be Flat" and "Zooming on a Corner of the Mandelbrot Set" appeared in 1989 on Brennan's first solo piano album, The Beauty of Fractals (Creative Works). Start with the opener, "Eastern Front", a trio invention (and a tremendous prologue), with its searing circles of microtones, Lee's towering arco flashes, Brennan's prepared piano, and van der Schyff's piercing hand drawn figures. Very soon this morphs into a stark, supremely elegant "Anyway, Was There Ever Nothing?" where, in an exact retrograde of Annette Peacock's "Nothing Ever Was, Anyway", Brennan's genuine heroes (I return to the disc's title) aren't tucked away at all.
"In this piece" he explains, "you have some of my (non-zero) heroes: the Bleys, Marilyn Crispell, Annette and Gary Peacock. For me, as well as for my Pago Libre pals, the 1961 Jimmy Giuffre trio, with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow, is still a seminal concept". Look for further proof in Brennan's second solo feature, "Zooming on a Corner...", a meditation on these models.
The two duos, "Powerful Stranger" (piano-cello) and "The Ocean's Answer" (piano-drums), are exquisite still-lifes. Indeed, Lee and Brennan, in their sometimes sleek, sometimes abrasive turn, produce spells of chilling beauty. While van der Schyff and Brennan bob and jab until their duet becomes a wild, dancing abstraction.
In the end, Zero Heroes is an impeccably crafted suite, pulled out of the air by three improvisers with nearly unlimited technical and emotional resources. Mere mortals might call it something heroic. But, as Brennan tells us, we must banish these thoughts. So, start the CD again and think on his advice. These sounds, rare and sometimes divine, spring from performers with only one request: a listener with careful, attentive ears ready to accept an offering that's honest and humble and altogether human.
Toronto, February 2003