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John Wolf Brennan / Peggy Lee / Dylan van der Schyff - Zero Heroes

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Artist: John Wolf Brennan / Peggy Lee / Dylan van der Schyff

Album: Zero Heroes

Label: Leo

Review date: Aug. 26, 2003

Zero to Sixty

Combining the talents of Vancouver free improv stalwarts Peggy Lee and Dylan van der Schyff with renowned Swiss pianist and composer John Wolf Brennan, Zero Heroes documents their solitary and nearly unrehearsed meeting which tests the limits of true improv in both form and function.

After being flown into Vancouver, Brennan composed nine of the ten tracks for the performance on the spot. In turn these pieces were introduced to Lee and van der Schyff an hour before their scheduled performance, scarcely giving them time to familiarize themselves with this new material, much less run-through it. It is a testament to the talent of Brennan’s compositional skills and the exceptional improvisational abilities of the duo of Lee and van der Schyff that they pulled this off without a hitch - the road to bad improv is always paved with such lofty conceptual intentions.

The disc begins with a full-on assault of looping drones and feedback, a middle eastern-tinged skronkfest appropriately entitled “Eastern Front”. After such an auspicious beginning the trio refuses to settle into traditional improv territory, even when breaking into duo performances or letting Brennan solo. Of the two solo piano pieces by Brennan, “Be Flat” wins out as its intensely repeated low-end clusters morph into an atonal parade, providing victory for those who’d love to torch a certain Koln Concert.

In contrast, “Zooming On A Corner…” is akin to earlier Cage piano pieces, seemingly abstract but firmly afoot in the accepted tradition. Both Lee and van der Schyff participate in duos with Brennan to mixed results. “The Ocean’s Answer”, the duet with van der Schyff, never passes the warm-up phase, recycling percussion patterns heard in earlier tracks in a desperate attempt to gain some sort of foothold. In “Powerful Stranger,” Lee pulls it off remarkably well, as her violoncello sets an eerie questioning tone which is curtly answered by Brennan’s prepared piano work.

Highlights of the trio’s performances include the excessively busy and scattered clattering of “Ants On Mars,” which mimics its title by sounding like the magnified steps of scurrying insects on the red planet, until Brennan chooses to introduce a romantic motif which is quickly disassembled by the duo, only to have its scattered parts reattached in a slow and carefree manner. The rapid-fire bass pattern plucked out on Lee’s violoncello in the introduction of “Let It Find You” is interjected by the unexpected arrival of Brennan’s use of the melodica, which sets up a drone pattern quickly thrown into fourth stream territory by the ethno drumming of van der Schyff, who takes this moment to shine.

Zero Heroes takes several chances both musically and aesthetically and succeeds where many other musicians would fail. The driving factor behind this trio’s success is their profound ability to advance well beyond the worlds of traditional jazz and avant classical improv. By blurring and erasing these worlds, the trio has created a deeply personal music that refuses strict documentation and demands listening.

By Everett Jang Perdue

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