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Michael Wollny: Treasures from the Wunderkammer

Photo credit: Michael Wollny Website

Kurt Ellenberger By

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There are two sides of being a musician that I think everyone experiences—one is analyzing, thinking, and planning the music, and the other is when you are performing, where you don’t think, you don’t plan, you trust and you make music in the moment.
German pianist Michael Wollny is one of the most exciting and important jazz artists of our time. His work is marked by exquisite pianism and a restless creativity and search for expression that knows no stylistic boundaries. Wollny's output has been remarkable both in quality and quantity—he is in his early 40s, and has released almost 20 recordings as leader, along with many more as sideman, making him one of Munich-based ACT Music most prolific artists. 

All About Jazz: There was an article recently in a German newspaper, in which the great American jazz pianist Richie Beirach was talking about how difficult it has been not playing in front of a live audience. How has this affected you?

Michael Wollny: Now that I will be performing live again soon, I find that the prospect of doing so brings up some strange and complicated feelings. There are two sides of being a musician that I think everyone experiences—one has to do with preparation—analyzing, thinking, and planning the music, and the other is when you are performing, where you don't think, you don't plan, you trust and you make music in the moment, especially as an improviser. For me, this is where I connect with other people, both with the audiences and the other musicians I am playing with. After almost a year and a half of not performing live, I feel a real imbalance. I don't think it's healthy—I probably spent a lot of quality time with my instrument in the past 18 months, but I really need that other part where I can just let go, not think, where things happen without conscious intent, and let the music lead the way.

AAJ:  You seem to have channeled this experience in your recent solo piano recording Mondenkind (ACT Records, 2020) which is a gorgeous recording that beautifully captures that feeling of "aloneness" that we've all experienced during the last 18 months.

MW: I think you're opening up quite a bit in the US, but in Germany we're still quite locked down, which I didn't expect when I recorded this album last year in 2020. The recording was very intense for me, I felt the detachment and isolation quite strongly.

AAJ: It's such an interesting recording for many reasons, which we'll get into, but to start with, it's very rare to see a solo jazz piano recording that includes the music of 20C classical composers like Alban Berg and Rudolf Hindemith (lesser known brother of Paul Hindemith), with music from Tori Amos, and, of course, many original compositions. How did a piece from a rather obscure classical composer like Rudolf Hindemith come to be featured on  Mondenkind?

MW: Well, that piece is somewhat autobiographical. I had a teacher, Jutta Müller-Vornehm, when I was 11 or 12, who assigned me a lot of contemporary music from the early 20C. When she was young, she studied piano with a music professor in Munich, Maria Landes-Hindemith, the wife of Rudolf Hindemith. At the time, she was living at the home of the Hindemith's, and so she had a great deal of familiarity with his music. I learned the sonata that I recorded on Mondenkind from his original handwritten manuscript. I performed it in my teens for some competitions, so the piece is really deep in my background. His music always connected with me because it is surreal, witty, sometimes strange. And it is somewhat similar to his famous brother Paul's music—driven by intervallic relationships, with keen attention to form and structure. At the time that my teacher met Rudolf, he was very interested in the dance and popular music of the time—ragtime and jazz in particular. And he seemed to have been a quite odd and cranky character, so, from her stories, as well as from the music, I could always feel this kind of crazy energy there, which strangely appealed to me as well. I have a lot of pieces that I played during that time of my life that I often find are coming back to me in surprising ways—I look down at my hands and realize I am playing a certain voicing from a piece that I played 27 years ago. So, when I realized that I still knew the piece, it seemed like it would be a good fit for this recording.

AAJ: There's a lot of that influence on that recording in particular—plagal cadences with an almost medieval sound, which frame the contrapuntal and often dissonant textures that are driven by voice-leading. We find this in some of the early 20C classical composers like Bela Bartok and Paul Hindemith.

MW: It's nice to hear that this comes across. I'm always intrigued by tonal music that pushes the border of tonality somewhat, and I have a real fondness for plagal cadences, since they quite simply undermine the well-established set of rules of descending fifths. Anyway, for Mondenkind, I think it also was largely driven by the conceptual framework at the beginning, which was to record in the Teldex Studio in Berlin. This is a beautiful hall known largely for classical recordings. The sound is so rich and gorgeous, and they have a different recording philosophy as well. All of that meant that I had to approach this in a different way, paying a great deal of attention to tone color and timbre. The hall thus really changed my way of thinking about this recording, both in the planning stages and in the actual recording. After the first take, for example, I listened back and realized that I had to change my approach and adjust my touch and arm weight to the hall. I could hear so many details that I didn't hear in a normal jazz recording, where the microphones are so close to the strings. As soon as you alter the touch you are using, you also notice that everything else changes—phrasing, dynamics, voice-leading—to complement the sound of the piano and the hall. It's something that pianists experience at almost every concert, but having a recording reflect the acoustics of the room in such a meticulous way—almost as much as the instrument itself—became a very important part of the musical process.

AAJ: As a pianist, you're at a real disadvantage from other instrumentalists who perform on the instrument that they own and know intimately. For a pianist, every performance is on a different piano—how do you deal with this issue?

MW: I go into it thinking that I am not only playing the piano, but I am also playing the room or the hall as well. That's why the attention to the room on this particular album was such a fulfilling experience—it's something we know form being on stage, but rarely from recording studios, at least in the jazz world. The room is really an amplification of the resonance of the piano, so I usually pay a lot of attention to that. But for jazz pianists, we learn to deal with quite a wide range of pianos in terms of quality. For this recording, I had two wonderful Steinways, but in small clubs, that is usually not the case. But, we adjust our playing to suit the piano and the venue, and of course, the music is different because of it.

AAJ: On Mondenkind and on your newest recording XXXX  (ACT, 2021), which is experimental electronic music, there is a strong focus on tone color, reminiscent of classical composer Arnold Schoenberg's concept of Klangfarbenmelodie (translated as "tone color melodies" or "melodies made with tone color"). Along with the classical influences, there are also influences from many other genres. Are these things something that you intentionally pursued in these recordings?

MW:  I have an insatiable curiosity that leads me into different directions, and the idea of color is one that was of great interest to me in both of these recordings. Even before that, for my last trio album, Oslo (ACT, 2018), I have written a tune called "Farbenlehre"—which reflects Goethe's color theory and is a kind of homage to the harmonic language of Einojuhani Rautavaara. I deliberately set out to write a piece with a tone color melody there— instead of a melody on top of some chord changes the piece is built as a multi-layered choreography of triads. In terms of genres, I don't feel like "here's the classical me and now I'm switching to the electronic me and now to the jazz me"—it's all just me! But I listen to a lot of different genres, and my attention moves around between them all when I perform. Now, as a university teacher, I also have a lot of music brought to me by my students, so I am constantly exposed to new music that I would't have found on my own. And it's always so enriching to challenge myself and my own aesthetic judgement: why do I like or dislike this particular piece of music? What makes it interesting? I regularly feel the answers to these questions for me are not bound by style or genre. I think all of this is responsible for the different themes that I explore in my music.

AAJ:  You seem to have integrated all of these different influences in a way that is totally authentic, and (as one listens to your many recordings) that is often quite surprising for the listener.

MW: Thank you—my hope is that I can integrate all of my background into my music in a way that is real, honest, and uncontrived. In terms of the different genres and their influence on me, well, I love to listen to classical composers like Alban Berg, and Hindemith (both Rudolf and Paul), and Györgi Ligeti, and many others from all eras—tonal, atonal, experimental/electronic, minimalist, etc. I also love to listen to John Coltrane, and Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett, and Joachim Kuhn. But with all of it, it comes through the piano, so perhaps that is the integrating element that brings it all together for me.

AAJ: As many artists have done in response to the covid crisis, you recently did a live streaming broadcast with the renowned trombonist and vocalist, Nils Landgren, who you have recorded and played with several times over the years. It is interesting to see that you enjoy these types of collaborations, because so many jazz pianists at this stage of career seem to favor the trio format as leaders. Stylistically, the distance from  Mondenkind and XXXX to Landgren's pop cover tunes work is quite far. How do you simultaneously approach these kinds of projects from such disparate genres?

MW: It's quite interesting to me that the question of genre seems to be treated quite differently in music as opposed to almost any other art-form. I get a lot of inspiration for my work from cinema, and there's many similarities to be drawn between the language of cinema and the language of music. There are some directors who remain within one genre only. But the vast majority of directors develop their voice through many genres. To give an example from the very top of the list, you know for sure it's a Stanley Kubrick film, but he made a Science-Fiction film, Historical dramas, a War movie, a Horror movie, even a cover version of Schnitzler! So having an individual voice does not necessarily correspond with only allowing yourself certain genres or narrative frameworks. And then there's Werner Herzog who says: to develop a true style you only have to be focused on the story, not what you think of "your style" or "your genre." This has always been quite encouraging and inspiring to me. On a different note, the people I play with are like family, so when we get together, we have musical conversations, and like real conversations, they grow organically. In collaborative projects, I think it is important to be yourself and to choose what you bring to that "conversation." So, when you have a true conversation with someone in that environment, it can be stylistically quite different from what you would have in another situation, having a different conversation with another musician. So, thinking about it that way, there is no contradiction or compromise involved. With Nils, who is a dear friend, I have to say that I have learned so much from him—phrasing and sense of timing in particular. As long as I feel so much inspiration through playing with somebody, no matter what situation and style—something seems to be working in the right direction.

AAJ: Your newest recording, XXXX features saxophonist Emile Parisien, bassist Tim Lefebvre, and percussionist Christian Lillinger is experimental electronic music, which was quite surprising to me and I'm sure to other listeners. What led you in this direction?

MW:  As a teenager, I had some electronic gear and I did some techno tracks using an Atari computer and Cubase, but I never got too deep into it. I have played with Heinz Sauer for many years, often using electronic keyboards. We've done some really great duo concerts together, so I have done some work in that genre. Heinz and I play a concert in a small club in Frankfurt in the first week of January every year. It's a totally improvised concert— we get together for dinner at a great Italian restaurant, have a glass of wine, and talk about the year. Then, we play a concert with whatever we have brought to the gig. Sometimes I bring electronics, and so does Heinz. My electronic experience is certainly not extensive—I experiment with the sounds, which produces surprising results, especially in a live setting like the concerts with Heinz. I enjoy this very much—I like reacting to the electronic sounds that are being made—it is very exciting and unpredictable. So, my work with Heinz has really given me a lot of confidence in this genre, even though I'm not an expert on the electronics. 

XXXX  came about because I wanted to work with my good friend Tim Lefebvre in an electronic setting. I had worked with him in an acoustic setting, but since he is an electric bassist, I thought an electronic setting would be interesting. From there, I brought in Christian Lillinger and Emile Parisien, who I knew, because of their backgrounds, would bring some very interesting perspectives to the music, as well as being very comfortable in a completely improvised situation. We booked four dates and we didn't rehearse at all. We played together during the soundcheck, and we had no set list, no tunes, we just played two sets every night and each set was totally improvised and experimental. The idea was not to record an album—we just wanted to document these concerts. So Tim an I met up in Atlanta in February 2020 with producer and engineer Jason Kingsland to listen to the recordings (luckily, before everything closed down). I brought all eight hours of music with me, and we worked in the studio to mix everything, but even at that time, I don't think we were thinking of releasing this as an album yet. When I was flying back, I texted my friends at ACT, and said "I think we have an album here."

AAJ: There are some jazz musicians that are known perhaps as much for their compositions as their playing—like Thelonius Monk, Wayne Shorter, or Kenny Wheeler, for example. Looking at your work, it seems that the compositional element is on par with the pianism. This last album leans heavily in the direction of experimental composition rather than a traditional jazz recording. How do you see those two elements informing your work?

MW: This idea of how composition and improvisation relate to each other is really an interesting topic. I see the composition part of it starting from much earlier in the creative process—it begins with the conceptualization of a musical project, choosing who to play with, where to play, and where to record—all of that is part of the composition. For example, a few years ago, I was commissioned to write a piece for the anniversary of the Bauhaus. It was a 90-minute piece for the opening night, and it felt to me like I started composing the piece when I selected the people to work with. This initial decision created a "sound" for the music before a note was ever written. This is what a composer does—make decisions on what should and shouldn't happen. As a composer, I do feel like a tourist of some kind because I've never written for anything that I am not directly involved in. I've also never written for any large ensembles like a big band, so my channel for composing is very much defined and fairly narrow. Again, looking towards cinema—sometimes I rather feel like an auteur director who writes a script, makes some very important casting choices, looks for the right locations and then hopes to simply catch the magic moments. That means, even as an auteur, you have to be very aware and flexible towards anything that happens during the shoot, even if it's not one hundred percent as written as in the first script. 

AAJ: Some of the great classical composers, like Brahms, Beethoven, and Bach, were great improvisers, but that tradition disappeared in classical music by the end of the 19C. Improvisation has been largely associated with jazz for most of the 20C, but today, many jazz composers are very focused on composition in larger forms, so it seems that the two genres are coming together.

MW: It is interesting to note how improvisation went away in classical music, but it's good to see it coming back as more and more classical programs are recognizing the importance of it. I think students today are less afraid of improvisation. And I'm involved with a few programmes where classical players are leaving their comfort zone and start playing music without any written notes, not only in Leipzig, but also in Oslo and a very fruitful collaboration with Geir Lysne and the musicians of The Norwegian Wind Ensemble.

AAJ: Over almost 30 years, ACT Records has really established itself as a major artistic force. You've been with them for a long time— how has that relationship worked in your development?

MW: They have been so great to work with. Siggi [Siegfried Loch, founder of Act Music] was so supportive of me from the very beginning, even when it was not easy to do. My first couple of recordings as I was getting started had low sales, but Siggi stood by me. I don't think a lot of labels would have done that. So I am grateful for him and for the whole team—it really is like a family. I have known most of the people working there for 15 years, so those relationships are deep and strong. Over the years I've often admired Siggi's sense for musicians and his ways of bringing out some of their best work—he's just an incredibly experienced listener with a vast knowledge about many different kinds of music, who continuously makes music happen around him. Last but not least he fundamentally understands how to create an audience for these events ! He likes to be involved in all aspects of the production, and, although often challenging, his feedback will always bring the production to a higher level.

In the recent years, I became similarly close with Andreas Brandis, who Siggi installed as as his co-lead and managing director of the label a few years ago. He became my manager when he created TAMBOUR, his sub-company, in his first years at ACT. Andreas has co-produced almost all of my more recent projects, and from the very beginning this particular collaboration felt like a really wonderful match. Having been a musician himself, Andreas very much knows and supports the artistic process behind all new work, and from Bauhaus to XXXX we developed a very satisfying way of collaborating and creating new material and productions.

All in all, the main thing i can say about ACT is I've really learned a lot from working with them over the years—and I'm particularly pleased that during thís time we managed to very successfully lift off some rather unexpected albums, the prime example for me being Wunderkammer. There were many discussions about this recording within ACT, since it took everyone by surprise, and the process of having an odd project like this finally successfully released created a lot of trust and energy on all sides! After all, this record was so important to me because I think this is what I have been doing ever since—I curate my Wunderkammer [trans: "box of wonders"] and I bring out the many curiosities that I find in there. I am so grateful that I have a label that supports me in this quest.

AAJ: Wunderkammer won the German ECHO JAZZ award in 2010 and I think that it is a real highlight in your work, so it is interesting to hear the background story. What are your plans for the future?

MW: I will be coming to the States to record in December with Tim. We haven't decided on what that will be. I'm also really excited about a collaborative concert that is planned for September in Frankfurt. I will be working with the famous French classical pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and I am really excited about that. He's been a hero of mine for many years and he is a major figure in the world of contemporary music. He has premiered works by Györgi Ligeti, Pierre Boulez, Karl-Heinz Stockhausen and others. He will play pieces that are unknown to me, and then I will improvise a response. We met a few weeks ago to decide how to set everything up in the hall, and I was, to be honest, quite starstruck! Such a friendly, warm and incredibly thoughtful presence, it will be a real honor and joy to improvise music around this piano master.

AAJ: Will the concert with Aimard be streamed as you've done on Facebook?

MW: We're not sure, but in this time of the pandemic, we have to prepare for several different contingencies, so it is possible that it will be streamed. 

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