Pago Libre
L & R / CDLR45105

Tscho Theissing / violin, Arkady Shilkloper / french horn, John Wolf Brennan / piano, Daniele Patumi / bass







Shooting Stars and Traffic Lights
L & R / CDLR45090

Tscho Theissing / violin, John Voirol / saxophones, synthophone, John Wolf Brennan / piano, Daniele Patumi / bass, Alex Cline / drums

These two discs document Brennan’s ongoing fascination witth the jazz tradition. More than that, they gather up some of the strategies that he, Patumi and Theissing use in their attempts to breathe new life into the head-solos-head format, the metrical structures and cyclic changes which free jazz abandoned nearly forty years ago.

All this is rather reminiscent of Steve Lacy, who’s had some nice things to say about Brennan’s groups in the past. Not surprising, really, since they share a whistful but often abrasive approach, a tendency to switch from carress to rabbit punch without the slightest warning. In light of the fact that Brennan’s reputation is built on his composition, however, it’s good to see how much space he gives to Patumi and Theissing on these two sessions.

The former is a flashy, funky bass player with a tendency towards slap-style playing despite his using an upright instrument. His popping riffs underpin deceptively slippery melody lines, however, and his inventiveness gives his rhythm section work a firey effectiveness. Theissing, on the other hand, is half Grapelli, half kletzmer foot-stomper, injecting excitement into the written parts and diving headlong into his solos. These two navigate the tricky time signatures with an offhand swing born of familiarity with both the material and their fellow musicians.

Pago Libre are a regular group, a quartet who play ensemble-based jazz with a heavy compositional element and a close mutual understanding. Still, it’s hard not to single out Shlikloper’s contribution for special mention. He’s a genuinely great jazz player, working the whole seam from bebop to freeform, on the French horn, of all things. Probably the finest jazz player on the instrument of all time, for his contribution alone this disc is worth the asking price. His compositions are surprisingly complex affairs given his tendency to focus on linear development in his solos; “Interludi” is an odd-metre-infused broth which just keeps on twisting and turning, sprouting unexpected melodic ideas right up to the end. “Waltz in 4/4”, on the other hand, must be the only piece to make playing in the most common metre of all seem tricky, a strangely beguiling piece which has you constantly checking it still really is in four.

Shlikloper’s absence in Shooting Stars and Traffic Lights, then, might seem a difficult one to make up for. That’s if one forgets the sheer quality of Theissing and Patumi; if one forgets how good Brennan’s piano sounds in these settings, and if one ignores the presence of Cline and Voirol, whose presence, in fairness, can’t be ignored for long.

Voirol is a lilting player, not much given to fireworks, but then, unlike Shlikloper, he doesn’t have to prove the viability of his instrument every time he picks it up. As a result, he keeps things pretty cool and collected, even on a barnstormer like “Toccatacca”, in which he does make a more agressive intervention but still steers well clear of quick-fire runs or bluesy screaming. Where these techniques are employed — as on “Gathering at the Threshold” — he shows he can handle himself, but that seems to be a side of his playing that, at least in this group, he prefers to avoid. Like Brennan, Cline is a highly flexible player. Both are able to play anywhere on the continuum from very straight to completely free; and like Brennan, Cline always manages to sound like himself. His swinging ride cymbal or textural effects never sound like hack-work, but his contribution does make this a more conventionally jazzy ensemble than Pago Libre.

As for Brennan himself, there are other places to hear his piano-playing undiluted, but it’s good to hear him working with groups in this way. Although not in the least domineering, he underpins both sessions with the sensitivity and surety of touch which he brings to all of his projects. Whether comping changes or embellishing a solo with pretty arpeggios or skull-rattling clusters, his is a strong hand on the tiller which steers both ensembles through some difficult waters. These are both enormously agreeable discs of challenging jazz compositions performed by top-notch musicians. Richard Cochrane