Brennan Connors & Stray Passage embrace the absence of formula

The free-improvisation-centered jazz trio celebrate a new album on October 21 at the Mason Lounge.

Stray Passage are, from left to right: Brian Grimm, Brennan Connors, and Geoff Brady.

Stray Passage are, from left to right: Brian Grimm, Brennan Connors, and Geoff Brady.

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Just about every key moment in the existence of Madison-based jazz trio Brennan Connors & Stray Passage has taken place in front of a live audience. Connors (tenor and soprano sax), Geoff Brady (percussion), and Brian Grimm (cello and electric bass) have spent plenty of time rehearsing together offstage, but since forming in 2011, the group has played live shows frequently and unceremoniously, often at cozy and noisy bars like Mickey's Tavern and the Mason Lounge.

While Connors initially formed the group in hopes of playing some of his original compositions, their first album (and Connors' first as a bandleader), Emergence, focuses entirely on free improvisation. They'll celebrate its release on October 21 at the Mason. The album captures one of Madison's best jazz outfits coming into focus, but not necessarily around a specific sonic identity or approach.

"It's kind of almost more about the aesthetic, psychological process than about reaching for a specific sound," Connors says. "Communication takes precedence over objective."

This statement reflects that free improvisation is as much a discipline and a deliberate practice as playing composed pieces. What's changed the most over the past six years is that the band members have gotten better at listening to each other, anticipating each other's moves, and are more comfortable with not overthinking what they play.

Often a piece will start with Connors pointing to Brady or Grimm and saying, "You start one"—at which point the said bandmate just has to jump into... something. On a rational level, that approach might sound a bit terrifying, but it's a way of short-circuiting the conscious filters that can get in the way of creativity. "I'll go into something that I never would have found otherwise in that specific performance that night," Grimm says of these moments.

Playing frequently and in very informal venues has also forced the band to confront different limitations from one performance to another. When the band is jammed in next to the bar at Mickey's, they usually have to compete with a lot of crowd noise, which means they don't get in too many moments of quiet exploration. Brady jokes that he's become pretty good at incorporating the loudness of Mickey's bar dishwasher into his performances. At the laid-back, cozy Mason, they're generally asked not to get too loud, which blocks off the skronky extremes most people think of when they think about free jazz.

On Emergence, they deliberately set out to capture a happy medium. They recorded two nights of performances in March 2016 with a live audience in the main room of downtown recording studio Audio For The Arts (which has hosted many live shows over the years, including in the on-again off-again Surrounded By Reality avant-jazz series). These shows included some actual compositions (most by Connors, one by Grimm), but to the surprise of everyone involved, only improvised pieces made the cut. They say the next Stray Passage record might focus entirely on original compositions, recorded without an audience.

I was at one of the recording shows, and my first thought on listening to Emergence all the way through was that it's much quieter and more textural than the performances I remember. This is an album that's as interested in patient, rustling atonality as it is in fiery, expressive melody, especially on "It's Underneath" and "Emergence."

"I think there was about five or six hours of music that we recorded, and basically I just went through it all, made notes on what I thought worked, what I thought didn't, made a large list of stuff that I thought didn't work and then brought it down to five tracks that I thought actually didn't sound too bad," Connors says. "And it just so happened that those five tracks formed a cohesive narrative that could be called an album."

The process of boiling down five hours of recordings into a 50-minute album, and the way the band members discuss their approach, says a lot about how humble and self-critical all three of them really are, despite being seasoned and versatile players. (Brady's many projects over the years have included Major Vistas, Yid Vicious, The Gomers; Grimm's have included Lovely Socialite, Watercourse Quartet, The Brothers Grimm, and numerous solo works; Connors has played in jazz outfits including Samba Novistas.) A good improviser has to cultivate an elusive balance of deliberation and instinct, and that's always a work in progress.

The way Brady sums it up is a bit mischievous, but still true: "It's a process I like to call 'someone starts doing something and the others do something else, and hopefully they're listening at the same time, and then something happens. Then time passes.'"