Milestones: John Wolf Brennan

JAZZ REVIEW (London), Issue 81, April/May 2007

John Wolf Brennan was born in Dundrum, Ireland on the 13 February 1954. His family moved to Switzerland in 1961 and he has lived there since. The pianist and composer has a multi-faceted musical life, including jazz, celtic music, free improvisation and classical composition. A considerable catalogue of variegated recordings can often seem confusing in their diversity, although his work as leader of the international group, Pago Libre, is a constant. Jazz Review asked him to unravel the tangles by identifying the key moments in his career and explaining their import.

1968. Rebelling: My mother was a singer, who was more or less professional, singing the classical repertoire from Schumann to Wolf with occasional sentimental arrangements of Irish folk songs. My father was a good amateur pianist who played Bach and Beethoven. I was forced to take classical piano lessons. But in 1968 I shied away from classical music, and at the age of 14 started playing bass guitar in a rhythm and blues band. It was a rebellion. was totally sure it would shock my parents and it did. At that time I was totally involved in the rebellious phase of rock music. I played in the band until I was 20. Later, my parents began to like Jimi Hendrix and the Woodstock era!

1972: Hearing Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath: I heard the Ogun Record with the cover design by Niklaus Troxler. The one with the red tree and the fingers coming out of the branches. This was the moment I discovered jazz music. I was captivated by the mixture of sheer anarchy and the way it seemed to be quite organised. I immediately decided to leave the field of rock music and move to jazz and improvised music. I used to go to Willisau to hear jazz concerts. After Chris McGregor, the next person I discovered was Keith Tippett. I heard him play in a group called Amalgam with Trevor Watts and John Stevens. I wanted to see the group in Willisau, but they arrived a day late. I hitch-hiked to Fribourg to hear them and I fell in love with the city and decided to stay there. I lived there for four years as a result of Amalgam.

1974: Study: I went to University to study Musicology, and I was studying jazz on the side by going back in history. To Miles Davis, Eric Dolphy and eventually the 30s and 40s. I was trying to get a concept of what jazz can mean from the point of view of a European. I took some additional jazz studies at the jazz school in Bern, but bebop was the only thing that they accepted. I wanted to do jazz, but not in a traditional way. I wanted to do free improvised music, not traditional jazz. Later I discovered FMP, the Dutch scene and radical free improvisation, people trying to make music without any idiomatic context. Derek Bailey and Eddie Prevost tried and achieved it. My music was probably cerebral, but there was a groove coming from rock music. I was still shaped by Jimi Hendrix, fascinated by Mahavishnu, Bitches Brew. When my music was at its most abstract, it took the earthiness and roots of jazz rock to give it back some balls. I was a big fan of the British jazz rock sound. Especially If, and Henry Cow; one or two pieces by Nucleus.
1979: The first record: I had a group called Impetus - named after the London magazine! - one piece from that record is on the 2006 compilation called Initials. If you listen to it now, you might place it near the music of Oregon. Close to the folksy side of jazz.

1983: The second: Impetus totally changed its line-up and was completely different for the second record. You might call this a jazz album. All six tunes are on Initials. You can hear the seeds of Pago Libre. There's violin and a very important role for double bass, emancipated double bass.The music still has joyful, folkish melodies, but the rhythm section is traditional jazz.

1988: Urs Leimgruber: Working with Urs was certainly a milestone. I was attending concerts by OM. My music was certainly not jazz-rock, but I felt a strong affinity to Urs Leimgruber and Christy Doran. Urs and I played together for seven years, and made four albums. After that I played with Christy Doran in various combinations, right up to today. Our last album was 2004,Triangulation, in trio with drummer Patrice Heral. In 1988 I lived in New York for nine months, ands that gave me the power and energy to make my first solo album. I also got married. So that was a big year.

1989: Pago Libre’s birth: I was on tour with a project-quintet fronted by the German singer, Gabriele Hasler, with Swedish trumpeter Lars Lundvall, Urs Leimgruber and bassist Adelhard Roidinger. The band split up in the middle of the tour, and out of the shambles there was a duo with myself and Lars Lundvall. The tour manager was worried about breaking the contracts on a 20-date tour. He pressed me to do something. I called the violinist Steve Goodman and the bass player Daniel Patumi from a tiny village in Austria and asked them if they could come to Stuttgart the next day. We met up three hours prior to the scheduled concert, rehearsed and played the rest of the tour. The posters said Gabriele Hasler's Organic Voices, but the band on stage was Pago Libre. After the tour we recorded for Splasch, an album called Extempora. You’d be surprised how much it sounds like today's band.

Pago Libre became the centre of the action for me. It fulfilled all of my dreams of coming up with new music which forms a triangle of contemporary jazz, imaginary folk music, and classical chamber music. The first thing you miss is the drum kit. If you don't have a drummer everyone shares responsibility for the rhythmic element of the group. Considering this accounts for my energies as a band leader, it’s surprising that there are only six albums over 18 years. This has something to do with the intensity and workmanship that goes into every production of the group. There were seven years between the first and the second albums. It’s not that we did nothing, but there was no support for the group. Solo albums can be produced with pocket money in comparison, so they were produced in a regular way. I made Irritations in '91, and then I got a grant to study and stay in an artists house in Monaghan in Ireland - The Tyrone Guthrie Centre. That was '93 and the result was the album Text, Context...

1997: East End of London: I was able to spend six months in the East End of London thanks to a scholarship. I did the Hextet album with my heroes: Julie Tippetts, Evan Parker, Chris Cutler, Paul Rutherford... The idea was to have Lindsey Cooper but she was ill, and Mike Westbrook suggested Pete Whyman. It was like a dream come true. Going back to Brotherhood of Breath and Henry Cow and the whole evolutionary line coming from my roots – setting poems to music (back to my mother singing lieder). At the same time, I made the solo record Well Prepared Clavier which was another major step. Leo Feigin organised a concert at QEH in London and the whole of the last third of the CD was a live recording from that concert. It’s like an encyclopedia of all the sounds Mr Steinway dreamed - and never dreamed - of. With all the prepared sounds, I was trying to get beyond gimmicks and find a musical form. For me, it was a kind of personal discipline, but it turned out to be a very popular album. It falls exactly between the kingdoms of jazz and contemporary classical music, but it's probably played most in the second. The more kids you have, the more difficult it is to get away and this was my last year away from home for a significant time. Concert tours have become what residencies once were.

1993: Large pieces: I started to write large- scale pieces like operas. The first was an oratorium, called Euratorium. For large orchestra and Choir. The next opera was in Swiss dialect. Then there was a carnivalesque piece for classical symphony orchestra. The third opera is called Night Shift. It's going to be premiered in St Gallen in May. I always composed, but very few people knew. In a country with a very high density of artists, I had to fight for the first ten years against well-established artists to get grants and commissions. The first piece was written at a very low level of funding. But slowly my name entered the world of artistic bodies and Arts Councils. It took a long time. If you look at my output, you are irritated and you might wonder: well, if he does so many things, is he any good at any of them? This can cause scepticism amongst those who handle funds. I tried to keep independent, financially, by working my arse off as a piano teacher. In 25 years, I’ve never had any less than 23 students. That’s how I’ve paid the bills, and how I’ve been able to keep a band like Pago Libre going.

1999: The first Pago Libre album to make a real impact was Wake Up Call, recorded live in Italy. This was a wake-up call for critics and audiences, and we suddenly had people calling us an important group, right across the continent. It's taken over more and more of my time. We play a lot in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and in Italy and France. We’ve done two tours of Canada, one in China. We’ve been to Russia six or seven times. In the Autumn we go to Belgium and Holland for the first time. Last week in Lyon, we played to 1,000 people. In Russia, there can be 3,000. My dream is to bring the band to my ‘home turf' and to play in Dublin, Belfast and Cork.

1999: Momentum: This is my outlet as an improvising musician - purely momentous music - out of the moment. It started in Chicago in 1999 when I met the clarinetist, Gene Coleman. He's also a composer. We found common ground very fast. It's like a laboratory for new forms of sonorities in a collective process.

And now: Pago Libre's Stepping Out album won us the biggest prize in Swiss music, and means we have three years of financial support from the Government at the highest level. Touring is now the priority, and, of course, the opera. Pago Libre’s next album does have a working title, Fake Fol. We want to concentrate on the ‘imaginary folk' strand, but it will be well into 2008 before we get it together to the point that we can record.

Interview: Roger Spence

Selected Discography:

Text, Context, Co-Text, Co-Co-Text

Through The Ear Of A Raindrop
LEO CD LR254, 1997

Pago Libre:
Wake Up Call: Live In Italy
LEO CD LR272, 1997
Stepping Out
LEO CD LR444, 2005

Momentum 4: Rising Fall
LEO CD LR 44, 200

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