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Pianist, Composer, Music Educator
Piano Improvisations, Chamber music, Irish Dances:
Catholic musician Mark Christopher Brandt Presses Forward
By Thomas V. Mirus April 15, 2015
Catholic pianist and composer Mark Christopher Brandt has had a productive year—the busiest in his career so far. Back in March 2014, he released Round Trip, an album of duets with guitarist Dan Leonard. Several months later came December Moment his jazz trio’s Christmas album.
Now, in the first three months of 2015, Brandt has already put out two more albums, each showing a very different side of his artistry. On the feast of Mary, Mother of God (January 1st) he released Seven Moons, a CD/DVD of completely improvised solo piano pieces, while St. Patrick’s Day (March 17th) saw the release of Joie de Vivre, an eclectic mix of compositions for piano, guitar and violin.
With these two new works, Brandt demonstrates his ability to embark simultaneously and successfully in two radically different directions.
Seven Moons may be the biggest artistic risk Brandt has yet taken, since it relies entirely on his abilities as an improviser. Not a single element was written beforehand, nor was there any editing afterward—what is heard on the album is exactly what Brandt came up with on the spot in studio.
There were only two structural constraints: first, a time limit of five minutes for each of the eight pieces (seven for the moons of Saturn and one for the planet itself), and second, a key in which to begin and end each piece, drawn randomly out of a bucket immediately before the start of each performance.
What may seem like an esoteric concept to some is made more accessible by the album’s release not just as a CD but as a DVD, allowing us to watch as well as listen to the process of spontaneous creation as it occurs.
While the pieces have a loose, exploratory flow befitting improvised music, Brandt finds strong thematic material to give each track a distinct identity. I also heard at least one theme recurring in multiple pieces, reinforcing that the album is the product of a single (approximately) 45-minute session.
Even among jazz pianists (and though “jazz” does not encompass Brandt’s musicianship, it is not an inappropriate reference point here), a completely improvised album is a rare accomplishment. Brandt plans on recording at least three more such albums in the future. While this album covers a lot of stylistic ground—jazz lyrical and impressionistic, angular counterpoint, pop, folk, blues—it will be interesting to see what other planets (or solar systems!) in Brandt’s musical universe will come into view in the next few years.
Joie de Vivre
If Seven Moons is all about improvisation, Joie de Vivre goes to the other end of the spectrum. While there are some improvised solos, this is Brandt’s most through-composed album to date, filled with intricate arrangements that sound at times like chamber music. It is the second in a five-disc series by Brandt’s band No Explanations, here featuring a core ensemble of Brandt, guitarist Dan Leonard, and violinist Emily Wellington. The trio is supplemented on two tracks by the percussive footwork of Irish dancer Shani DuFrain, who also sings on one piece, marking the first appearance of vocals and lyrics in Brandt’s recorded output.
This highly eclectic album is grounded by a three-part “American Suite for Irish Dancers.” Emily Wellington shows herself as adept an Irish fiddler as she is a classical violinist, while Shani DuFrain’s Irish step dancing is used as a percussive element throughout the suite, and given the spotlight in the fiery second part, “Alannah’s Spanish Dance.” Perhaps most surprising is Brandt’s ability to write convincingly traditional-sounding—and memorable—Irish melodies over a bedding of jazz harmony.
As mentioned before, much of the album is essentially chamber music; the closest thing to a straight-ahead jazz tune is the jaunting waltz “Hope Springs Eternal,” which features solos from all three musicians. There’s also “The Visit,” a jazz composition which first appeared on Round Trip, but even this has been substantially reworked, the relatively straightforward core piece now framed by a gossamer latticework of piano and guitar harmonies, with a long, slow violin melody reaching out overhead.
The somberly earnest “The Child in Me” is entirely through-composed, as is the title song which opens the album and is reprised in instrumental form at the end. In “Joie de Vivre,” Shani DuFrain sings an intricate, classically soulful melody, telling us that the joy of life is eternal even as this life comes to an end. In the reprise at the album’s end, Leonard, whose presence on the vocal version was subtle, plays a stunning gypsy-esque solo on classical guitar.
The album’s longest track, “A Celebration of Life,” may be Brandt’s most complex and ambitious composition yet recorded. He takes a playful staccato theme and continually reworks it in unexpected ways—chromaticizing it, swinging it, reharmonizing it, and introducing it in a series of changing moods. Meanwhile, room is made for Dan Leonard to rivet once again, this time on electric guitar with a solo of long, sweeping lines.
From a compositional perspective, one gets the feeling that Brandt could have developed this material even further than the delightful seven minutes it presently occupies, and that this "Celebration of Life" may be a prelude to celebrations of even greater length.