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Round Trip to the present moment: a Catholic jazz artist's latest offering

By Thomas Van (articles - email) | Apr 22, 2014

“Art is not something that has ceased to be created.” Michael Levey began and ended his History of Western Art with these words, and what with the tendency of modern Catholics towards cultural pessimism, we could always do with a reminder. Of course, since a mere assertion will not be enough to convince the dubious, it’s useful to have a recent example close at hand – and from a fellow Catholic, no less!

Mark Christopher Brandt, a pianist, composer and accomplished music educator based in northern Virginia, is the quintessential Catholic artist – not in the sense that most of his work is topically Catholic, but in the deeper sense that his musical philosophy is totally informed by his Catholicism and his imagination has been enriched by Catholic culture. After a major conversion in 1991, Brandt rooted his whole musical life in devotion to Mary and Jesus in the Eucharist, and he gives all the credit for his music and his equally substantial teaching ability to the Holy Spirit. He models himself on J. S. Bach in devoting all of his artistic output to the glory of God. In Brandt’s own words, "The artist and his artwork are but a microcosm of the Creator and His creature. We are all living works of art capable of cooperation with the Divine Creator in realizing and aspiring to our potential beauty."

As a jazz pianist, Brandt is constantly drawing parallels between the life of faith and the art of improvisation. In truth, the similarities are striking. Jazz musicians must submit themselves to extremely disciplined practice in order to be free to create spontaneously in the moment of performance. The improviser strives to make something new in every performance while remaining within a composed structure. The spirituality of the present moment and freedom within structure: in these aspects and more, the creative process of the jazz musician resembles the Catholic spiritual life.

Mark Brandt is not just a great improviser but a real and increasingly committed composer. Jazz has seen a dearth of these in the past two or three decades, and Brandt is one of the few today whose compositions are truly memorable and can stand on their own in addition to being used as vehicles for improvisation. He has released seven albums of his original compositions and performs regularly in the greater Washington, DC area as a solo pianist, with his jazz trio, and now with his new band, No Explanations.

Brandt has a number of projects planned for No Explanations over the new few years, and their first album, Round Trip, has just been released. As the album art indicates, Round Trip is the result of a long musical partnership between Brandt and guitarist Dan Leonard. The album includes both newly recorded pieces and ones that were recorded in 1997, all of which are written by Brandt.

As might be expected with such a long time gap, there tends to be a slight difference in character between the earlier and the later recordings, partially due to a difference in sound production. The former are more boisterous, whereas even in the most percussive moments of the latter there is a certain intimate and reserved delicacy of touch and blend between the piano and guitar, as well as a gentler rhythmic flow. What has not changed since 1997 is the musical sympathy between Brandt and Leonard, which has only deepened. The interaction between the two is always sensitive and based on mutual listening.

While this could accurately be called a jazz album, with “Rays” probably fitting most clearly into that genre, influences are present from several other sources. Hints of the span of American folk traditions pop up everywhere, particularly in “The Doctor Is In,” “Shani,” and “Mountain Air.” This is only natural, as Leonard has played blues on tour with the Deanna Bogart Band for years, and Brandt spent some of his formative years playing country music. Both, too, are classically trained (Leonard plays classical guitar on several pieces), and Brandt’s compositions show a strong classical influence, most audible in the short pieces “Sunrise” and “Faustina’s Theme,” as well as the album’s melancholic closer “The Shore at Night.”

Such a variety of influences, listed separately on paper, could be called eclectic, but in audible fact, and in accord with the laws of human and artistic development, they are integrated into the personalities of the two musicians. The dominant force in the music is no particular genre – nor is it a self-consciously clever fusion of styles – but an unassuming lyricism, conceived in a union of composition and spontaneity.

Full disclosure: Both Dan Leonard and Mark Christopher Brandt are friends of the reviewer.

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