John Wolf Brennan

Leo Lab / CD034

John Wolf Brennan / piano, melodica, voice, Tscho Theissing / violin, Marion Namestnik / violin, Martin Mayes / French horn, hand horn, Lars Lindvall / flugelhorn, trumpet, Daniele Patumi / bass

The instrumentation here is not so idiosyncratic as it may at first appear. The album breaks roughly in half, featuring two half-hour suites each performed by a quartet of Brennan, Patumi, one violinist and one brass player. The voices are used only very briefly. Each quartet plays well, mostly interpreting Brennan’s music in a straightforward, no-nonsense style.

Each suite was composed for the theatre, and consists of a large number of short cues. As so often with soundtrack albums (not those albums which collect twelve unrelated pop songs under a film title), the problem is one of continuity. Disregarding one extended piece, the average length of a track here is just over fifty seconds. This music was doubtless very evocative in the theatre, but in the living room, on the stereo, the effect is of sketchy ideas, repeated once or twice and then abandoned. Sometimes the ideas return, but not in any way which might be called “development”.

Little, if any, of the music here is improvised, and is largely characterised by 4/4 rhythms, simple tunes and repetition. The melodies are often beautifully arranged, and employ some striking harmonies, even if they can be rather callow in themselves. Where Brennan has previously been linked with the jazz avant garde as well as the classical fringes, this is minimal, rather folksy stuff clearly designed to augment a visual stimulus. Alone, each piece becomes a simple, brief gesture with none of the sophistication which, distracting as it may be in the theatre, would help retain interest under the headphones.

Alexander Kan, in his sleeve notes, concedes that the pieces “hardly happen on their individual level”, but goes on to claim that each suite unites them, like a mosaic. Which would be all well and good, if each piece were not either (a) musically unconnected with any of the others, or (b) almost exactly the same as one of the others, or (c) made up of two of the others played at the same time. Without exception, every one of these pieces sounds as if it’s going to be great for the first forty seconds. If it isn’t about to finish by then, however, it is inevitably going to repeat what you have just heard without much in the way of variation. Sticking such pieces together does not of necessity produce a meaningful mosaic.

There are certainly good moments here. The second half is an improvement on the first (thirteen tracks instead of twenty two). Naturally, the longer tracks overcome many of the problems enumerated above, but there are too few of these to be able to program a satisfactory album. Mostly, they promise much but fail frustratingly to deliver. It’s always a shame when promising material like this isn’t worked on before committing it to CD — the straight transfer from stage to stereo is pure laziness, and it shows. Richard Cochrane