from the Phoenix New Times May 18, 2006
THE BAND WITH TWO BRAINS
Jazz Duo Slays at Modified
The moniker behind improvisational music duo Brain Killer doesn’t refer to hours of mind-numbing, Jacuzzi-type jazz. It’s an amalgamation of the band members’ names: Texas trombonist Brian Allen and Valley pianist/keyboardist Jacob Koller. Together, the duo creates hypnotic landscapes that gallivant through freewheeling jazz, avant-classical and art-rock territories. On Thursday, May 18, at Modified Arts, 407 East Roosevelt Street, the adventurous pair will play material from their album and unleash brand-new robust originals. The band’s self-titled debut some stripped down melodic fare with soft hued tones, a sharp contrast to its eruptive approach during live renditions of “War Room” and “Seizure Salad” that emphasiz Allen’s abrasive honks and Koller’s moody licks. Collectively, the pair has played with the heavy hitters of the new-music scene, including Tony Malaby, Tom Rainey, Mark Dresser and Wadade Leo Smith. The doors open at 8pm. Visit www.modified.org for more info. -Steve Jansen
BRAIN KILLER (BRIAN ALLEN/JACOB KOLLER/MARK DRESSER)
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 equation.
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.
from San Antonio Express News
Brain Killer Peformance
March 19, 2002
University of Texas at San Antonio New Music Festival
Brain Killer, a duo of pianist Jacob Koller and trombonist Brian Allen, closed the Tuesday concert with three of their own pieces in an astonishing style, a rough-edged but formally disciplined hybrid of jazz, dada and punk classical – all frightfull and compelling as a train wreck. – Mike Greenberg, San Antonio Express News
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
The winds of fate blew cold inside a Canadian airport where Brian Allen and Jacob Koller were tied up in red tape. Whatever the lack of merit in that infliction of figurative bondage, it did help to get the two closer together musically.
Allen and Koller are an interesting pair. There is an easy symbiosis, an oft-used term, but one that fits in well with this duo. What makes it all the more relevant is the way they pick up on each other, the mind and the ear tuned to the quick.
Allen roves a wide spectrum. In the quieter moments which are rife in the compositions, he shades the tune with a warm tone that is daubed in pastel shades. But he soon craters that terrain with abrasive jabs that shatter the rhythmic pulse and add a welcome edge. The dynamics are more pronounced on “U Can’t Stop The Train” where the turbulent bent of the trombone is matched by the churning explorations on the piano, quite the contrast to the mood captured becomingly on the gentle, lyrical “Don’t tell Me How To Feel”.
All through Koller proves to be a bountiful foil. He scampers lightly behind the ‘bone and then traipses a step ahead of the beat before falling back again on “Closer”. It is an enticing game, and one that perks interest. Adding to this is the way in which they go on to encircle, probe and dialogue.
Even as Allen and Koller explore diverse sonorities and take to the playing field with odd metres and catapulting sonorities, they gather all the elements and mould them into a nice fit.
~ Jerry D’Souza