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Sunday, February 21, 2021

Patricia Brennan - Maquishti (Valley of Search, 2021) ***½


By Keith Prosk

Mallet percussionist Patricia Brennan crafts a tuneful environment on the hour-long debut solo and debut as leader, Maquishti. While Brennan has recorded with 7 Poets Trio, most of her recorded work is with large ensembles, including Michael Formanek’s Ensemble Kolossus, Matt Mitchell’s, the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, and the Webber/Morris Big Band. It’s refreshing to hear her vibraphone and marimba unobscured, with space for the harmonic glow of the bars to breathe. Some tracks are highlighted as improvisations, but many of the other tracks were composed out of improvisations in the studio, so there’s a spirit of spontaneity that keeps things fresh.

Most of the tracks feature vibraphone, and most of those have a melodic theme. The pacing is relaxed and the time between strikes spacious. The vibraphone is sometimes lightly modulated with effects pedals, bowing, or pitch-bending techniques, the spaced-out tones of “Solar” being a great example. The tunes teeter on lullaby or jingle territory but playfully explored, making a music that is surficially simple but rewards a close listen for harmonics that hang in the air, clash with each other, and blend. Notable exceptions, which are also the most lively vibraphone tracks, include the angular contrapuntal rhythm of “Magic Square,” the new age drone and bowed wavy resonance of “Away from Us,” and the small sounds, scraped glissandos, and tinny mbira-esque pluckings achieved with objects on “Point of No Return.” The marimba tracks - “Improvisation VI,” “Improvisation VII,” and “Derrumbe de Turquesas” - are welcome timbral palate cleansers and, juxtaposed next to the ringing vibraphone, illuminate the lower resonance of the material; whereas the vibraphone easily fills space with a single note, the marimba often plays at an increased tempo and drastically varies tempo and volume to fill space and create movement. The marimba tracks are evenly sequenced but the more adventurous tracks are backended, which seems to provide a pacing strategy that eases in conventionally-minded listeners and hooks more adventurous listeners before too long.

I have a personal bias, in that I hoped for a solo mallet record - something I’m not sure has been done in this style since Bobby Naughton’s and Jay Hoggard’s records in 1979 - to really extend the sound and language of the instruments, but this is not far from the foundations of Milt Jackson or Bobby Hutcherson. That said, Brennan’s style is distinctive from Adasiewicz, Dell, Moran, Nicodemou, etc., not to mention the other percussionists that dabble in mallet instruments, and that’s made clearer than ever thanks to this intimate format. There is a measured, comfortable inside-outside sandbox play here. And while I think the focus is on the tunes, their dancing harmonics, now uninterrupted by other instruments, give the ear a lot of material to enjoy.

Maquishti is available on CD, LP, and digitally.