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  • Glenn Siegel

As Serious As Your Life: Patricia Brennan Quartet in the IMA Barn

People sometimes use the term “serious music” to distinguish it from the easy pleasures of popular music. Besides the implied value judgement about the inherent worth of such music, the term also assumes added effort to both produce and appreciate it. But the serious music made by the Patricia Brennan Quartet in the barn at the Institute for the Musical Arts on February 25, displayed a seriousness of purpose and was readily enjoyable.

The Quartet featured Brennan on vibraphone, along with Kim Cass, bass, Noah Brennan, trap drums and Mauricio Herrera, congas and batá drums. They played material from their recent Pyroclastic release, More Touch. (Marcus Gilmore plays drums on the recording.)

The musicians had obviously invested a good deal of effort to turn the subtle, shifting nature of Brennan’s compositions into breathable and satisfying sound; and from conversations with the band it was clear they have devoted their lives to developing a deep understanding of Latin and classical music.

Patricia Brennan was born and raised in Veracruz, Mexico where she absorbed son jarocho and other traditional music, while learning to play piano, marimba and timpani. Fully immersed in the western classical canon, Brennan toured with leading Mexican orchestras before enrolling at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Her detour towards improvised music has put her in the illustrious company of John Hollenbeck, Michael Formanek, Mary Halvorson, Matt Mitchell and Vijay Iyer. We first heard her in person last year at IMA in Goshen, when she played in Mary LaRose’s Dolphy project.

Brennan told us about playing John Cage and Steve Reich compositions for percussion quartet, and how the instrumentation of those groups inspired her current configuration. The music Brennan organized had rhythmic bite, harmonic complexity and plenty of melody. The pieces with overt Latin rhythms, like “Unquiet Respect” and “Square Bimagic”, churned with forward momentum. “Space For Place”, began with gauzy atmospherics, before Herrera entered on batá drums, raising sacred plumes. The piece ended with a tight, high energy percussive line.

Brennan’s use of pedals and technology to bend notes made me think of Mary Halvorson’s guitar approach. Although much of the music was firmly in the pocket, Brennan’s use of electronics and shifts in mood and tempo, distinguished her pieces from the dance forms they referenced. This superimposition of modern constructs on traditional grooves is immensely exciting, and the 25 intrepid listeners who braved the snow to get there were riveted.

In much the way New Orleans drummers in the early 20th century melded their instruments into the modern drum kit, Mauricio Herrera connected his three, two-headed batá drums so he could play them simultaneously, an innovation conceived in the 1980s. Herrera is a Babalao, a high priest of the Ifá oracle in Santeria practice, and his understanding of the religious significance of each rhythm deepened the music. Since the Cuban-born percussionist came to the U.S. in 2005, he has worked with dozens of high profile musicians in the jazz and Latin music world, using his knowledge of traditional drumming to serve modern ends. His interplay with Noah Brennan provided all-night fireworks and a solid rhythmic foundation for the ensemble.

Patricia’s husband, Noah Brennan, was a revelation. How does someone born and raised in Robbinston, Maine, a coastal town with a population of 600, become an outrageously creative drummer while joining forces with a Mexican rising star? That’s a story for another day. Maybe due to his extra rehearsal time with the composer, Mr. Brennan’s time feel was hand in glove.

As the evening’s other melody instrument, bass played a critical role in the overall sound of the ensemble. Kim Cass was masterful and soulful. In the last few years I’ve started to see his name in print, on records by Matt Mitchell, Rob Garcia and Noah Preminger, and in performance with Tyshawn Sorey, John Zorn and Rudresh Mahanthappa. Now we know what the fuss is about. Like Noah Brennan, Cass moved to Brooklyn from rural Maine and is now rubbing shoulders with the best musicians in the land. Cass will return to western Massachusetts in September for a Jazz Shares performance with Noah Preminger’s quartet.

Incredibly accomplished, Patricia Brennan is poised to blow-up. She has classical chops, and her rhythmic sense is impeccable. Her compositions are complex but not dry, and she is a fearless improvisor. Brennan has her own sound on her instrument, no mean feat on the vibraphone. And she is genuinely nice. She’s also serious.

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