The medium an artist chooses and the tools he uses in that medium have a strong part in defining his final piece: a sculptor would be hard pressed to produce a great work using only newsprint and oil paint, and a painter likely could not produce valuable work without the proper brushes and palette knives.
On his new album, Bird on Triangle
(Standback Records, 2005), Toronto drummer Gregg Brennan seems to have somewhat misjudged the "tools" needed for the job. Brennan is a solid, fluid musician, a good listener who is both creative and reactive, and this disc is a good representation of some of his playing. The rhythm section of Brennan, bassist Neal Davis and guitarist Avi Granite is strong, holding together well from beginning to end. That said, the choice of Mike Anklewicz on alto and Timothy Minthorn on piano does not always prove prudent, and indeed at times bogs down what might otherwise be some really buoyant music.
Right from the opening track, the European and Middle Eastern aesthetics are thick: Anklewicz, whose timbre is more like a bass clarinet than an alto sax, begins the disc with a slinky Klezmer-like melody. His ensuing primarily diatonic solo, however, quickly becomes pedantic and trite. Meanwhile, Minthorn lays down dense Debussian layers, but his solo lacks the same vitality, his attempts at swing sluggish and rigid. Just in time, Granite swaggers in, he and Anklewicz banter a bit, and the tune winds down again.
Much of the disc passes with similar frustrating juxtapositions: clever unusual melodies are routinely undermined by mediocre playing from Anklewicz (epitomized on "Mongols?" when the tune's breakneck speed cripples him), so that while the band maintains a rich dark palette throughout, the music itself never quite reaches a satisfactory blend. Given Minthorn's classical background and Anklewicz's experience in Klezmer groups, it's an interesting experiment, but ultimately it lacks cohesion. Indeed, drawing from the modern classical tradition as he does, Minthorn's harmonic and melodic ideas are quite fresh, but for the duration of the disc he manages to sound like a displaced solo classical player rather than the organic ensemble member one would hope for.
Setting all that aside, however, there are some noteworthy moments on Bird on Triangle
. The members of the band do listen to each other well, and thereby create some good pockets of energy over the course of the album's four tracks. As well, each member contributes some adventurous textures by stretching the use of their instruments beyond the conventional: Minthorn strums the piano strings, Davis plays with the back of his bow, Granite uses an effective pointilistic technique with harmonics, and Anklewicz contributes multiphonics and percussive effects.
The album closes with "Templar," which ironically is the first time that we get a real sense of plot: until then, it's all theme and insinuation which, though musical, does not help to solidify the album as a single work; instead, it sounds like it might be a compilation of unrelated pieces. "Templar," on the other hand, finally makes me think there might be a story in this music, and I want to hear more; it's well-arranged and very musically executed - the album's best tune. I look forward to hearing an album's-worth of such songs from Brennan in the future.