In Concert: At Suchu Studio, Houston, TX, March 10 2002
On Record: Brain Killer (Braintone)
Comments and photographs by Frank Rubolino

Brain Killer is a duet comprised of Lake Jackson (Texas) trombonist Brian Allen and Phoenix
pianist Jacob Koller. For the kick-off of their second Southwestern tour in support of their
recent CD release Brain Killer (an interesting corruption of the names Brian and Koller),
they invited bassist Mark Dresser to play with them in concert at Suchu, a dance studio in
the downtown area of the city. Dresser stayed over from the Jane Ira Bloom concert the
night before to work with this exciting group, and he then moved on to a solo concert in
Austin the next day.

Allen displayed a robust, fully energized trombone style filled with great intensity. Although
previously announced to be a combination of compositions by Allen or Koller, the entire set
evolved into a spontaneous, instantly created example of free improvisation. Allen and
Koller as Brain Killer have great empathy with each other's direction, and Dresser was a
natural fit into their highly unstructured approach to music. Allen developed rich, open
retorts from his horn. His sound had weighty characteristics and dense volume, allowing him
to project and communicate on a direct line to the listener. Koller, who normally plays
acoustic piano, used the electric version for this event. Amazingly, he was able to evoke an
intense sound totally devoid of the characteristics of fusion music that so often
accompanies the instrument. He sculpted with splattered hues and then expanded the pallet
with assertive statements that often changed the direction of the tunes. Koller built up layers
of dynamic sound, which seemed to ignite Allen into heavier rounds of blustery speech.

Dresser is incredible to watch as well as hear. He was on a whirlwind adventure with this
music, constantly switching between pizzicato and arco while introducing other techniques
such as using a small rod to scrape the strings or turn the bass into a percussion
instrument. One could see him intently listening to the others and then responding with
thunderous retorts from his upright.

The trio connected as a unit, and the sparse but dedicated crowd witnessed a performance
of invigorating, full-bodied improvisation endowed with individual excellence and collective
unity. This music demands a much broader audience base.

On their duet recording Brain Killer, the trombonist and pianist play music that is a mix
between improvisational style compositions and pure improvisation. Allen sustains flowing
lines of continuous trombone waves doused in soft-hued tones, which contrasts highly with
the eruptive approach he displayed at the live concert. The staccato playing method is not
his preference on this date; instead, Allen connects all his phases with a mellow, ringing
tonality. Only rarely does he infuse a piece with gruff textures. The session is comprised of
nine original compositions by Allen or Koller plus a nine-part mini-suite of short exchanges
written by Allen. All of the pieces rely heavily on a pre-constructed phraseology that has
classical music overtones and reiterative phrasing. This structure then dissolves into a
freely expressed conversation, only to revert intermittently to the notated side of the

Koller is an advanced colorist on the acoustic piano, adding shading, texture, and density to
the recording. Often, he and Allen play a composed line in unison, underlying the serious
themes with somber expressions of deep feeling. Koller becomes an introspective
improviser when put in a solo situation. He presents delicate musings heavily laced with a
near-foreboding aura. Koller places muted punctuation marks on the sentences of Allen,
generally wrapping the trombonist's output in warm, openly spun concepts. He picks up
fragments of statements made by Allen and rephrases and rearranges them into an altered
language of his own. Koller adeptly mixes the influences of European structure with freeform
music having a hint of the blues at its core.

The recording has many contrasts with the live performance, but it shows the extensive
range and talent of these two musicians who produce stimulating music in multiple contexts.