German pianist Michael Wollny could be one of the highlights of the 2017 festival
German pianist Michael Wollny boasts an eclectic range of influences, writes
THE German pianist Michael Wollny has risen to pre-eminence in European jazz on the back of a reputation for thrilling live performances, and with a series of imaginative, farreaching albums that leave no musical stone unturned. His 2014 album,
Weltentraum, with bassist Tim Lefebvre joining his longtime drummer Eric Schaefer, was typically eclectic: drawing on music by Alban Berg, Edgard Varese, the Flaming Lips, and more.
Nachtfahrten, or Night Journeys, lived up to that name – a series of sparing, contemplative works, with Wollny and Schaefer this time joined by Christian Weber on bass.
Speaking before his upcoming Irish tour, Wollny describes that album as decidedly a step towards something “lower, more dark and eerie”.
“It added a colour to our live playing,” he says. “We have lots of palettes we can use, including that slow sound. But also it’s just about playing beautiful music! We’ll always play as freely with these things as we can, though, and usually the live shows vary a lot in tempo. We have lot of trust between us and it is an exciting time for us.”
Schaefer and Wollny have been working together in one guise or another for 15 years, and Wollny sees something like
Nachtfahrten as one of the benefits.
“The psychological aspect of the whole thing is 100% the same as a long personal relationship,” he says. “You go through difficult times and awful times, but if you stick together the possibilities grow, the connection grows, the understanding grows.
“So when I say trust, I mean you can rely on each other in music. If you don’t like a new piece at first, you can stick with it because you trust. This is especially with Eric’s pieces. I’ll not understand them at all at first, but maybe two months later I’ll get it. On the other hand, outside of music, in a band, you have the business and the travel, being confronted with personal stuff and all this and I think that being together for 15 years makes all these things deeper and makes new things possible.”
The trio have recently recorded a new album, which Wollny says will feature during his Irish tour. “We spent this year writing, rehearsing, discussing, listening, all that. We have a new set of songs now and we would like to mix all that newer stuff, though we’ve only played it once before, in Leipzig just after the recurring session. It worked really well.
“All of us, we are listening to different material from different sound worlds. It’s not exclusively jazz, but contemporary classical, film scores, pop, electro. Sometimes you hear a song or a band and it just clicks, it makes you wonder how that would sound if the trio was playing that. This is sometimes to attempt the impossible – like an early Alban Berg song for orchestra, the question would be how to arrange that for a trio, with no vocals. There is no recipe for that! What you are trying to do is include something in your musical cosmos.”
Eclecticism has always been the hallmark for Wollny. His ear for combinations was perfectly displayed in 2016’s Tandem, a collaboration with French accordionist Vincent Peirani. Their version of Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’ is a revelatory reinvention, fused with a Gallic shimmer but still striking a melancholy note. That restlessness and inven- tion featured again in Wunderkammer, a series of duets with the harpsichordist Tamar Halperin.
Meanwhile, going back over 10 years, his trio with another longtime collaborator, Eva Kruse, on bass and the ever-present Schaefer began as a playful, percussive group which reached maturity in 2012’s Wasted
and Wanted, where one moment the listener is reminded of yhe Bad Plus, the next hears echoes of Mahler, Berio and Schubert.
WOLLNY’S evident comfort with classical influences stems from his early training. “It’s where I come from,” he says, “my natural musical environment. But I don’t think it’s a question of rebelling against it. Let’s call it a technical incompatibility with the music. Even when I was young, I just could never do the same fingering twice. I was always doing something new. I remember doing my first public concerts at seven or eight or nine, and I remember forgetting the music and just improvising. I studied it a lot, but I could never see myself as a classical performer on stage, there is some improvisational spark in me.”
If he comes from a classical background, Wollny is very much aware of the tradition his work in a jazz trio puts him in. “There is now 110, 120 years of history which connects us all,” he says. “Within that, I think we are connected with the tradition of the piano trio, with Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, Bud Powell: all of these points in time mean something. It shapes our understanding and we respect that. But, mainly, it is improvisation. Things don’t have to be formal or polite or perfectly shaped. It can be rough, it can be wrong, but it can make sense still if it has that set of aesthetics that we call jazz.”
The Michael Wollny Trio’s tour of Ireland includes Sugar Club, Dublin, Oct 25; and Triskel, Cork, Sunday, Oct 29. See michaelwollny.com
Michael Wollny plays at Triskel for the jazz festival in Cork, as part of a tour of Ireland.