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Album of the Week: Patricia Brennan, 'More Touch'

Patricia Brennan
Frank Heath
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Mallet percussionist Patricia Brennan, whose new album is titled 'More Touch.'

If you’ve ever peered down at the playing surface of a vibraphone, you’ll understand why it can summon the idea of a grid. What you see is a trapezoidal array of metal bars, lined in two rows, tapering left to right. Beyond that orderly symmetry, the instrument’s whole deal — aluminum tone bars, metal resonators, motor-driven fan belt, sustain pedal, even the casters — speaks to the advances of the second industrial revolution. In purely visual terms, it’s as sensuous as a piece of scaffolding.

Patricia Brennan is far from the only present-day mallet percussionist to imbue this rigid framework with a soul. A survey of just this year’s notable jazz releases will call up a handful of peers, each engaged in their own expressive strategies. The immersive luminosity of Chris Dingman’s solo vibes meditation Journeys Vol. 1, the stately gospel sonorities of Joel Ross’ The Parable of the Poet, the cascading dynamism of Sasha Berliner’s Onyx; these are the works of artists who know how to transcend the grid.

There’s an even more focused attempt to be found in Brennan’s extraordinary new sophomore album, More Touch. Brennan, who has risen to the first tier of progressives in New York’s improvised music scene, comes to her art and her instrument with a wealth of context. Growing up in Veracruz, Mexico, she cut her teeth with local marimba bands, combining that rich folkloric influence with formal symphonic training — in settings like the Youth Orchestra of the Americas, for which she was selected at age 17. Then Brennan honed her craft at the Curtis Institute of Music, grappling with a literature and a set of customs as well as the parameters of sound. Those restless insights informed her striking solo debut, Maquishti, released last year to no small acclaim.

Patricia Brennan Band
Frank Heath
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The band on Patricia Brennan's 'More Touch': Marcus Gilmore, Kim Cass, Brennan, and Mauricio Herrera.

More Touch goes further, combining multiple strands of Brennan’s experience into an intriguing whole. She has claimed partial inspiration from her time at Curtis, where she played in her share of percussion ensembles. The album’s instrumentation — Brennan on mallet percussion, Kim Cass on bass, Mauricio Herrera on hand percussion, Marcus Gilmore on drums — nods in this direction. In her notes, Brennan characterizes the quartet as “essentially a small percussion ensemble with bass, carving a space where rhythm, color and texture could flourish.”

Rhythm inhabits a grid too. But in her choice of collaborators, Brennan has sought a path of maximum flexibility — seeking not to evade complexity but rather to interrogate it from the inside. More Touch opens with “Unquiet Respect,” which borrows the buoyant syncopations of soca music, in a callback to Brennan’s upbringing. Gilmore and Herrera are just the right partners to harness a repetitive cycle into a form of steamrollering momentum.

Here and elsewhere throughout More Touch, Brennan makes judicious use of electronic effects — bringing an occasional warp or wobble to her notes, especially as they decay. It’s an idiosyncratic technique that also distinguishes the style of guitarist Mary Halvorson, whose standout 2022 album Amaryllis has Brennan in a prominent role. (Listen to the first minute or two of its opener, “Night Shift,” and you’ll notice how deeply the two artists are in sync.)

By coaxing a liquid tonality out of the vibraphone — again, not an easy proposition — Brennan subverts one set of expectations. But the marimba, whose tone plates are typically carved out of rosewood, presents no less of a vehicle for transformation. On “Space For Hour,” a nearly 15-minute exploration, her tremolos on marimba establish a sonic environment both warmly inviting and suffused with dark mystique.

That description could extend to the entirety of More Touch, given Brennan’s sensibilities as a composer and bandleader, which favor the suspenseful side of revelation and the collective pursuit of a flow state. Some pieces, like “Robbin” and the title track, incorporate group improvisation as a way forward. Others, like “El Nahualli (The Shadow Soul),” set a bass ostinato on one oblong orbit while the melody glides along another. “The Woman Who Weeps” — a tribute to Brennan’s aunt and godmother, Gloria, who died last year — makes dramatic use of a slow, rolling rubato.

Patricia Brennan
Frank Heath
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At the other end of the spectrum, Brennan works with structural intricacies of the highest order, like her regular compatriots Matt Mitchell and Anna Webber. “Square Bimagic” is inspired by a mathematical principle, as she explains in her notes: “A Bimagic Square happens when the square of each number replaces the original in a Magic Square. This process creates another Magic Square.” You don’t need to fully grasp this concept (I certainly don’t) in order to appreciate the track, an odd-metered groove escalation rooted in Cuban son.

In similar fashion, “Sizigia (Syzygy)” draws inspiration from the alignment of three or more celestial bodies. (For the record, it has nothing to do with a similarly titled tune by saxophonist Michael Brecker.) “Each section in this piece contains three rhythmic layers that complement each other,” Brennan writes. “Drawing inspiration from Afro-Cuban grooves that pass through the filter of 13/16, the piece has a circular, rotational feel, exploring the nature of rhythmic consonance and dissonance.” With any drummer other than Gilmore, the end result could have felt more cerebral and less sinuous than it does.

The cover image for More Touch features a single fingerprint — it could be Brennan’s, or it could be a stock image — and there are others throughout the CD package. (The design is credited to Spotswood Erving and July Creek for Janky Defense.) There’s a simple yet powerful idea in that choice of emblem. As a mallet percussionist, Brennan doesn’t generally put her fingertips directly on her instrument — but there’s an almost tactile sense of human expression coursing through this music. And like a fingerprint, it can be traced directly to a single source.

More Touch will be released on Pyroclastic Records on Friday; preorder here.

Patricia Brennan appears on Friday with Matt Mitchell's Phalanx Ambassadors at The Stone, and on Nov. 29 with the Webber/Morris Big Band at Roulette. The album-release celebration for More Touch is at The Jazz Gallery on Dec. 9.

Nate Chinen has been writing about music for more than 25 years. He spent a dozen of them working as a critic for The New York Times, and helmed a long-running column for JazzTimes.