BRAIN KILLER CD REVIEW
Brian Allen and Jacob Koller
Indie jazz? Well, I guess it could work. Sure, why not? After decades of settling for
heavyweights and cash cows like Miles Davis and John Coltrane, it's about time someone
stepped up and shattered the status quo! Down with being force-fed, right?
Okay, maybe not, but it was a nice idea. The thing is, I always sort of considered the great
jazz commercial by default. It's not as if Miles pandered to the masses just because he
recorded for Columbia, and the fact that he was signed by such a corporate entity may say
more about the state of art and commerce forty years ago than about anything else. It's
certainly not like that today. Sure, there are major jazz artists signed to big contracts by
bigger labels (think the Marsalis clan, or Joshua Redman), but I've often wondered how this
comes to be. From a label perspective, I can't imagine even the biggest names are bringing in
too much capital, and that the biggest selling jazz (or some such) artists are people like Diana
Krall and David Benoit says a lot. That's not a dis on D and D, but some rather depressing
examples of what passes for jazz today among the greater record-buying public. So, maybe
that is a dis, against big labels, D, D, and the public at large. Let me start over.
Indie jazz. This is not a highfalutin' concept. It basically boils down to the fact that big labels
aren't willing to take a chance on music, no matter how artistically satisfying and/or creative, if
it doesn't stand to make money. So, rather than sit at home, waiting for these labels to
change their minds, many artists resort to releasing their own music, taking full responsibility
for its distribution and production, as well as pocketing almost all of the money it does make.
John Zorn does it, Tim Berne does it, and Brian Allen and Jacob Koller do it. Brain Killer is
their first album, and it goes without saying that you're probably never going to hear this stuff
from a major.
Brian Allen is a trombonist from Texas specializing in something similar to Zorn's postmodern
take on jazz: that is, you'd be hard pressed to call it "jazz," or anything else during a particular
moment, but when you step back, dozens of genres become apparent. His classical training
comes through in the clear tone and precision with which he executes the heads on these
relatively short tunes. A sly pop influence comes through in his melodies, which owe as much
to Cobain as they do Coltrane (though may have the most spiritual connection to Monk). And
of course, the avant-garde is written all over this recording-- just try getting through the
angular strains of something like "The Unwelcome" without trying to find references to Bela
Bartok and Zorn buried in his liner notes.
Pianist Koller seems to be coming at this music from a different angle. Although he's no less a
style chameleon, I hear a tad more cinematic schizophrenia in his playing than in Allen's.
What that means is that even though the two duet throughout the album, it often seems that a
lot of the musical context is provided by Koller, as if he's creating the universe they exist in,
and Allen is commenting, or perhaps just dancing around it. Koller wrote about half the tunes
on Brain Killer, and after even a few listens, his pieces seem much less rooted in Allen's pop
experimentation and closer to something from a surreal soundtrack. Idiosyncratic to say the
least, and someone to watch out for in the future.
"Machines of Industry," for example, features lots of themes and dynamic changes, which in
turn produces the illusion of textural development, and yet seems to be describing a scene or
single idea. There are melodic phrases, but the piece doesn't seem so much a "song" as a
tone poem. And when the two players go off the beaten path for the mid-section improv (free,
as far as I can tell), the descriptive agenda remains intact. For me, one of the most
impressive things about Koller's tunes is that, despite all manner of diversions and mood
changes, the direction never seems to change. And when they're over, I feel like I've just
been told a short story.
I don't hear this kind of narrative in Allen's "Bite," though there's no shortage of ideas. Again,
it's the cut-'em-up aesthetic of bands like Naked City and Bloodcount that I hear most here,
and whatever it lacks in classical construction (which may be the real difference in these
musicians' writing styles) it more than makes up for in fearless playing and kinetic energy.
The duo makes a complete turnaround with "All the Rage," featuring a calm melody, but an
eerie chord progression that makes it seem like paranoia is never far behind. Koller takes a
solo midway through, and it would be almost loungy in its relatively peaceful phrasing but for
persistently discordant interjections. Maurice Ravel meets Cecil Taylor?
The albums ends with "D.O.P." which pulls out a few of the tricks presented earlier, but with a
lower intensity, fooling me into thinking they'll end on a down note. Koller drops a seriously
flighty note parade about five minutes in that leads to a furious coda wherein Allen doubles
the piano's bass notes, and the effect is closer to Ruins or Don Caballero than any jazz I've
heard. Afterwards, they launch a theme so rife with chaotic joy, I almost begin to wish they
were a rock band so they could really hammer this stuff out.
Allen and Koller are relatively unknown today, though it's not for lack of touring and
performing with other musicians. I heard them in a club last month, and they're usually playing
somewhere across the country. First, I'd wish anyone with a free night to go out and catch
their show, because music like this usually sounds better live than Memorexed. Second, like
most good music, the context is secondary to the artistry. Concepts like inspiration and
creativity bleed through scenes and genres-- "indie" or not, these guys are for real.
-Dominique Leone December 4th, 2001