Craig Brenner’s seventh album reflects a difficult time in his life
By Mike Leonard
It’s been said that artists sometimes create their best work when their stress and anxiety metrics are high, and the observation could easily apply to Craig Brenner’s seventh album, Passages.
Shortly after receiving a grant from the Indiana Arts Commission to record the album, the longtime Bloomington resident learned that his younger brother, Dan, his “oldest and dearest friend from the time we were little boys,” was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
After that, his mother, now 96, took the latest of several age-related falls, fractured her femur, and was confined to a long-term healthcare facility near her home in Florida. While she never contracted Covid-19, the health precautions caused by the pandemic made access to seeing her difficult at times and impossible at others.
The pandemic also put the brakes on live performances — a dispiriting and financially impactful development for virtually all working musicians. The spread of Covid-19 also pushed back the recording schedule for Passages and required a rethinking of an important component of the arts commission grant, teaching and performing the music with students.
The perennially good-natured pianist and composer takes a “and can you believe it” tone when he adds that his beloved black cat, Tut, died in the middle of all of this. Tut, the lovable jazz cat that hopped up on the piano whenever Brenner played at home and occasionally pranced across the piano keys — mostly to Brenner’s amusement, but not always.
The trips to Florida to settle his brother’s estate and grieve, visit his mother and grieve, and deal with the chaos and uncertainty took a toll. “The last year-and-a-half has been horrible for me,” Brenner acknowledges.
It all figured in to Brenner’s state of mind in making “Passages.” How could it not?
“I feel that there’s somewhat of a dichotomy in the album in things that are poignant and sad and things that are more upbeat,” he mused.
Poignancy might be the better descriptor, despite the sadness the composer felt. The opening track, “Life is Precious” is something of an opening and closing statement. It was originally titled “You Won’t Hear It Again” but it’s far from gloomy. More like a celebration of the beauty and elegance of jazz piano, with Dan Hostetler on drums and Ron Kadish on double-bass.
“There’s a dichotomy in the album,” Brenner muses. There are “things that are poignant and sad and things that are more upbeat.”
“Tut’s Boogie Woogie” pays homage of Brenner’s feline buddy and shows off the rollicking boogie woogie piano chops for which Brenner is well-known. For the uninitiated, Brenner launched the Bloomington Blues & Boogie Woogie Piano Festival in 2015 and has brought to Bloomington artists including Bob Seeley, Henry Butler, Marcia Ball and C.J. Chenier. His peers.
Brenner also demonstrated rock, blues and rhythm-and-blues proficiency during years of playing with Bloomington’s best bar band, The Ragin’ Texans. His tastes, and skills, are broad.
“Some Sexy Blues For Ya Right Here, Y’All” got its name from Brenner’s wife and vocalist Lori Brenner, who heard the song fleshed out and made the memorable observation. She nailed it, as did the supporting cast of Hostetler, Kadish, cool blues guitarist Gordon Bonham and hot saxophone player, Joe Donnelly.
And in the ‘it’s harder to do than it sounds’ category, “Paradiddle Boogie Woogie” romps to an unusual twist with Brenner alternating hands on the piano to carry the role drumsticks normally pound out.
Are there sad songs on “Passages?” Again, poignant seems to be better word. “No One Should Die Alone” feels like a tribute to the beauty of the human spirit and the fragility of the mortal coil, inspired by the isolation of his mother at her health care facility and the fate of many COVID-19 patients unable to receive visits from their families.
“For My Brother” is elegiac and majestic, with violinist and viola player Dana El Saffer elevating the piano-based tune into the realm of regal. “I wrote lyrics to it but I couldn’t bring myself to sing it,” Brenner said. “Maybe some day.”
Sonically, “Passages” sparkles with the all-star cast of mostly Bloomington-based musicians finding ways to ply inventive solos and fills within the framework tone of the songs. Recorded primarily at Airtime Studios, it also benefits from the recording, mixing and mastering of Airtime owner Dave Weber and his much-admired Yamaha concert grand piano. “The sound of that piano is incredible,” Brenner said. “It’s definitely one of the best pianos around.”
Brenner notes that his “favorite singer,” his wife Lori, not only contributes vocals to the album but also the handsome album art. The family contributions also include electric bass from his son, Nate, and vocals from Nate’s wife, Merrill Garbus, the nucleus of the eclectic Oakland, California-based group Tune-Yards (whose 2011 album, Whokill was named album of the year in The Village Voice’s annual Pazz and Jop critics poll).
Nate and most of the album’s musicians dive into a musical pile of funhouse balls in the album’s final cut. “I originally wrote and performed ‘Looking For A Job’ back in the 1980s with both Kruise Kontrol and Sajonner, a trio with Saaku Saar and T.J. Jones,” Brenner said. The reggae-influenced song was inspired by the unemployment and economic sputtering and shifting under the Reagan administration and includes honks and squeals and synthesizer sound effects to capture the unpredictable mood.
It’s the most incongruent track on “Passages” and clearly the most fun. Perhaps it’s Brenner’s way of bookending the album. Life IS precious. And music feeds the soul.
Passages is available on CD (discounted at Landlocked Music) and downloads at www.craigbrenner.com. Videos of several students performing pieces from the album are also posted on the website.
CONTACT: Craig Brenner, 812-929-1784, firstname.lastname@example.org
Mike Leonard retired from The Herald-Times after nearly 35 years as a columnist and reporter. He is currently a freelance writer and adjunct lecturer in The Media School at Indiana University. Mike Leonard, 812 369-1532, email@example.com