THE ART OF the jazz piano trio has undergone something of a renaissance over the past couple of decades, advancing so much more on the traditional expectation of Real Book pianist supported by drums and bass rhythm section. One only needs to look at the trailblazing achievements of Django Bates, Kit Downes and Phronesis, the seminal work of Esbjörn Svensson and, more recently, the rising interest in newcomers GoGo Penguin to understand that the format is travelling in increasingly more creative, vibrant and exciting directions.
Enter Michael Wollny who, like his one-time ACT stablemates e.s.t., possesses the innate ability, and the vision, to take the concept of the piano trio to a distinctly higher level. The German pianist has been on the scene for a decade or so, gradually building an impressive catalogue of recordings and collaborations. With this latest release, however, and a new trio – Time Lefebvre (bass) and Eric Schaefer (drums) – he appears to have catapulted his ambitions into the stratosphere with a recording of exceptional dynamism, divergence and beauty. ‘Weltentraum’ (or ‘Dream World’) has been approached from the point of view of songs or ‘lied’, with Wollny finding inspiration in music which is equal in strength of both melody and words/poetry – and, in doing so, has crafted an album of instrumentals (save for the final track) which, citing his own wish-list, encompasses “tonality and atonality, fragility and force, melodic purity, romantic totalism, endless melodies, dark abysses, angels, dream logic, light and darkness, and gothic beauty.”
The provenance of the fourteen numbers could hardly be more ingeniously varied and considered, Wollny and Schaefer producing remarkable acoustic trio arrangements of numbers from The Flaming Lips and Pink to Paul Hindemith, Wolfgang Rihm, Alban Berg and Guillaume de Machaut, as well as a couple of originals from the leader – yet the entire concept holds together so brilliantly. And, for all its inventiveness and interest, the music contained within these fifty-five-plus minutes, regardless of its origin, is consistently accessible and, I find, profoundly engaging.
For example, Eric Schaefer takes a 14th Century motet – de Machaut’s Lasse! – and transforms it into a gently shimmering, ebbing contemporary tune. With a deliciously bendy bass intro, Peter Ivers’ song, In Heaven (from movie Eraserhead), becomes a wide, flamboyant blues; and Be Free, A Way exchanges its psychedelic electronica for driving jazz/rock with a smattering of Gustavsen-like restraint. Rihm’s Hochrot (usually for soprano or tenor voice) maintains the original’s unsettled beauty, again Lefebvre’s bass integral to the whole pellucid reading; and whilst the words and music of Jon Brion’s Little People are already too beautiful, the song transcribes magically for jazz piano trio. Amongst all this are Michael Wollny’s own compositions – Engel, a dark, smouldering affair; and When the sleeper wakes, whose pop-song groove is illuminated by characteristically sputtering piano soloing.
And so the wonderful reinterpretations continue, the added spin-off being that they spark further personal discovery (Hindemith or The Flaming Lips might well be my next stop!) – and I positively recommend the whole ear-opening experience. The trio’s ensemble and individual performances are exceptional throughout, and the recording both bright and immediate.
Released on 10 February 2014, ‘Weltentraum’ is available from ACT Music, as well as iTunes and usual outlets; the trio begins a short UK tour on 29 April 2014 (see below).
Michael Wollny piano (harpsichord on final track, God is a DJ)
Tim Lefebvre upright bass
Eric Schaefer drums
with special guest
Theo Bleckmann (vocals & electronics on final track, God is a DJ)
UK tour dates 2014
29 April: The Vortex, London (TBC)
30 April: Queen’s Theatre, Barnstaple
1 May: Watermill Jazz at Friends Provident Social Club, Dorking
2 May: Sheffield Jazz, Sheffield
3 May: Cheltenham Jazz Festival, Cheltenham
ACT Music – ACT 9563-2 (2014)