Supported by the Artemis supergroup members drummer Allison Miller and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen as well as by long-time collaborator Dayna Stephens and bassist Nick Moran, Johannes Wallmann can count himself lucky to have a celebrity packed core band behind him to present six new cuts fresh off the pianist's pen. In addition to the celebrity lineup, a sumptuous string orchestra (15-strong) adds harmonic depth and ornamental brushstrokes along the way, expanding crescendoing build-ups with further dynamic width and embellishing soloistic instrumental sections with exuberant arrangements. The "jazz with strings" concept gains new intricacies through Wallmann's perspective and makes for an intriguing set full of atmospheric tunes that open up plenty of space for solos.
Every jazz musician who thinks something of themselves eventually has a go at the string-section jazz album. Charlie Parker did it on the two-split Charlie Parker With Strings (Mercury, 1950) volumes, while the likes of Joshua Redman and Chris Potter picked up the trend on Walking Shadows (Nonesuch, 2013) and Imaginary Cities (ECM, 2015) respectively. Most recently Pat Metheny had success weaving the entire Hollywood Studio Symphony Orchestra into his characterful compositions on From This Place (Nonesuch, 2020)a string-heavy undertaking in its own right. Concerning the strings' independence, Wallman opts for the middle-ground, assigning them autonomous melodic roles where the spacious changes allow it and having them follow motifs and ostinatos when the dense structures require itwhich, for the most part, is the case one the extensive opener.
Flickering strings give way to a laid-back downward-moving head immediately tying to a mellow secondary theme, played by trumpet and sax in unison. The bass holds down a pedal-point that dominates throughout the tune, grounding the track in a James Bond soundtrack-like eerie atmosphere on top of which the soloists perform. Whether the quite linear and repetitive 11-minute vamp is plain monotonous, or has a mesmerizing effect is up to the listener. But if it is indeed the one or the other, one will either find it very tiresome or fascinating to journey on through the remaining four titles (plus a short reprise), as their structures bear much resemblance to "Elegy For An Undiscovered Species."
"Expeditor" picks up the extended form with a funk twist, injecting the set with a 14/5 groove that works like a consolidated seven- and eight-time signature. Here, as on the romantically swaying "Two Ears Old," Moran switches to electric bass, proving the most questionable choice of the album. While picking up the electric bass in a funky context seems like an obvious choice, at least in theory, it's a clear misstep on the otherwise beautifully executed "Two Ears Old," showcasing intimate interplay between the core band and only rare string embellishments. There's something quite unpolished about the production, with reverb placing the drums in a figurative large concert hall, while Wallmann's piano quite oppositely sits closer up, as if played in a small jazz saloon. An unconventional production choice that might take some getting used to but doesn't have to stand in the way from enjoying the exquisite craft at hand.
Stephens delivers most lyrical tenor lines on "Longing," an unusual bossa nova counted in three that relies on the strings in most traditional design and finds Wallmann in restrained and generous poise. The Canada-raised and Wisconsin-based pianist prefers the reserved style of leading, inserting comprehensive chord blocks and arpeggios here and there as well as the odd solo, but most of all favoring the view from above, observing his collaborators while they interpret his sheets. A short solo of his on the multiple-chapters spanning "The Greater Fool" belongs to his best on the recording and is soon followed up by another highlight with Miller's fierce drum workout, flogging the snare like there's no tomorrow.
The real standout on the album is "In Three," another cyclical vamp, unsurprisingly counted in three. Here Wallmann layers a syncopated and horn-led melody on top of minimalist every-on-beat piano triads with support from Eleanor Rigby-ish strings. The composition maneuvers through harmony in angular movements to what appears to be a polyrhythmic backdrop but soon reveals to be a hemiola construction brought on by the bass melody. Each instrument organically finds its voice in the ensemble sound here, navigating through loops and cues as the strings wind up and down their necks to cunning solos by Wallmann, Jensen and, most notably, Stephens, who switches to the EWI (wind synthesizer) and sketches out modernist figures to a visionary arrangement. This is way out there and extremely successful.
Not everything on Elegy For An Undiscovered Species works out quite as well as "In Three" does and if some choices concerning sound and instrumentation had been different, the album might have ended up being a tad more concise. But as it is, Wallmann has nonetheless come up with an original ensemble sound that merits multiple revisitations and lets the listener dig deep into the textures and melodies of a tight collective, whose respective skills are on display throughout the entire hour-long endeavor.
Elegy for an Undiscovered Species; Two Ears Old; In Three; Expeditor; Longing; The Greater Fool; Two Ears Old (reprise).
All About Jazz & Jazz Near You were built to promote jazz music: both recorded albums and live events. We rely primarily on venues, festivals and musicians to promote their events through our platform. With club closures, limited reopenings and an uncertain future, we've pivoted our platform to collect, promote and broadcast livestream concerts to support our jazz musician friends. This is a significant but neccesary step that will help musicians and venues now, and in the future. You can help offset the cost of this essential undertaking by making a donation today. In return, we'll deliver an ad-free experience (which includes hiding the sticky footer ad). Thank you!
Get more of a good thing
Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories and includes your local jazz events calendar.