A Madison thing we’re listening to: Michael Brenneis and Paul Hastil’s “The Moraine”

Two veteran jazz musicians head into the improvisational wilds on this set of piano-drums duets.

Two veteran jazz musicians head into the improvisational wilds on this set of piano-drums duets.


Drummer Michael Brenneis and pianist Paul Hastil are the kind of musicians without whom jazz music in Madison wouldn’t function nearly as well as it does, threaded as they are into a host of residencies and collaborations. Both play in the gem that is the New Breed Jazz Jam on Tuesday nights at the North Street Cabaret. If you’ve seen even a handful of local jazz shows, you’ve probably seen at least one of them play, but it’s rare to get the chance to see either take the spotlight as bandleader, composer, or free improviser. Both write original material and are gifted improvisers, and Brenneis has put out several recordings of experimental jazz in collaborations including Tomato Box and the Active Percussion Duo.

Michael Brenneis.

Michael Brenneis.

The two showcase their gift for abstraction and instinctive playing on a recently released album of piano-drums duets, The Moraine. It’s part of a planned monthly series in which Brenneis will record and release improvised sessions with a series of local jazz players, keeping things, he says, as spontaneous as possible. It’s a deliberate effort on Brenneis’ part to put his collaborative work in a different context, and to make more space in his life for adventurous, free playing.

“Twenty years or so ago, that was one of the main tracks that I was on and then over the years I’ve done other things and not pushed that track of my playing as much as I have in other things,” Brenneis says. “I mean, I still do it, but I sort of got away from playing absolutely free music to more composed things. It’s sort of a return for me in a way.”

The Moraine, recorded over the course of a couple hours at Hastil’s home in Brooklyn, Wisconsin, also captures a kind of playing that Brenneis and Hastil haven’t previously explored together. A few moments here, like “Meanwhile Consensus,”  border on the more accessible, conversational territory the two explore in the New Breed. But the spirit of the exercise seems to be in tracks like “Itchy Potential,” an 11-minute piece that begins with Brenneis coaxing an array of squeaks, scratches, and wheezes from his kit. Hastil  reaches into the guts of his piano to tease out some ethereal rumbles, then tugs things toward an ever-shifting, off-kilter rhythm. The two spend those 11 minutes careening between sheer deconstruction and something that borders on melodic cohesion.

As unvarnished as The Moraine is—the only productions twist seems to be panning the piano around at unexpected moments to emphasize certain phrases—Hastil and Brenneis both use the acoustic basics at their disposal to create uncanny atmospheres. “For Example Drumlins” builds on bass-y, voice-like swells from Brenneis and lush but tense chords from Hastil. “Portentous Document” consists of one lurching, fragmentary phrase after another, occasionally punctuated by an abrupt pause. It’s a challenging listen, but rich in texture and space.

Paul Hastil. Photo by Jess Horn.

Paul Hastil. Photo by Jess Horn.

Future editions of the series will find Brenneis collaborating in duos with guitarist and saxophonist Will Greene, bassist John Christensen, and trumpeter Paul Dietrich. These are all folks he’s played with before, but rarely to make fully improvised music.

“The interesting thing about it is the different things people bring to the table,” Brenneis says. “Paul Dietrich is not known as  a free player, but my approach with him is, let’s have a conversation. I’m gonna give and you’re gonna give and we’ll communicate in a way that makes sense musically.”

Brenneis plays Sunday, April 29 at Arts + Literature Laboratory with another of his groups, The Improvisor’s Workbench. He’ll also be playing ALL’s May 4 jazz festival with saxophonist Anders Svanoe, in both a trio and a highly entertaining “double trio” format. He’ll be back at ALL on June 24 with Major Vistas, August 26 with Christensen, and finally on September 30, in a duo set with Hastil.

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