With his long, tousled hair and boyish demeanour, German pianist MICHAEL WOLLNY – who bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Andre Previn, perhaps (for those that can still remember the veteran German-American maestro) – looks remarkably younger than his years. He’ll celebrate his thirty-ninth birthday next year but he still has the appearance of a teenager. But as we know, appearances can be deceptive and the music that Michael Wollny makes with his trio evinces a maturity that denotes a master rather than an apprentice at work.
Like Previn, the Schweinfurt-born pianist took the classical route to jazz, which he discovered and was inspired by in his teens after hearing Keith Jarrett’s ‘The Koln Concert’ album. He made his recording debut in 2005 when he joined producer Siggi Loch’s German ACT label and since then hasn’t looked back, releasing several acclaimed albums. Though he’s recorded and performed in varied musical configurations during the last decade – for instance, his latest recording venture is a duo album called ‘Tandem’ with French accordionist, Vincent Peirani – his forte is playing within the piano trio format. Wollny’s drummer, Eric Schaefer, has been with the pianist since the very beginning but his bassist, Christian Weber, is the newest member and the replacement for original trio member, Eva Krause, as well as the more recent stand-in, Tim Lefebvre.
The trio have rightly reaped a plethora of accolades and plaudits from the critics for their last two studio albums, 2014’s ‘Weltentraum’ and last year’s ‘Nachtfahrten,’ which staked Wollny’s claim as one of the most exciting and imaginative young pianist and composers in jazz at the moment. Wollny, who’s not averse to inserting a couple of rock and pop covers alongside original material in his set, performed at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival in 2015 and now returns to the UK with his trio to play at a venue called King’s Place on Saturday 12th November as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival.
Prior to his visit to London, the pianist – who speaks impeccable English by the way – spoke to SJF’s Charles Waring about his impending UK visit as well as his latest project, ‘Tandem’…
What can we expect to hear from you at the London Jazz Festival?
Well, as you probably know, the trio’s been around for a few years now. There have been different bass players but there’s always been (drummer) Eric and me. Over the years we built up a repertoire of music and the main theme of the repertoire now is mainly the last album (‘Nachatfahrten’) but the last concerts have been spiced up with some old favourites. We don’t really have a set list. We have some things that we want to do and sometimes some tunes just happen in a way. So I think we’ll mainly play stuff from ‘Nachatfahrten’ but there’s some other stuff, old favourites, so to speak, every now and then and sometimes just even just half of a song or an intro from a song.
Will Christian Weber be playing bass for you?
Yes, Christian is a member of the trio now. We played some concerts this year with Tim (LeFebvre) because sometimes it happens that someone isn’t available and we want to do a concert so Tim is there also. Actually, we even playing a concert with (the trio’s original bassist) Eva (Krause) at the beginning of the year, but Christian is the bass player of the trio now and that’s going to continue because we’re really, really happy with the way that things have developed with him and how he’s contributed to the sound of the trio.
What does he bring to your group?
A lot of spontaneity. All the concerts that we have played with him have been really, really diverse and different, so we’re constantly surprised by his sound ideas and counter-line ideas and just the way he shapes songs from underneath is really strange and inspiring every time. On the other hand, also, he can play the strict composed parts and do almost anything. He can play strange, odd-meter grooves and can play straight jazz with swinging lines; just every kind of box that is open by music he jumps into the right position and really pushes the music all the time, so that’s a really special flair along with his unique sound and ideas.
And what about Eric Schaefer, your drummer? You’ve been playing with him for quite a time. haven’t you?
Yeah, for 15 years I think now. It’s kind of difficult to describe… I guess he’s the most important colleague and musician and friend. During all this time it’s something that has developed that’s beyond the normal partnership on a project or a date. We discuss a lot of things from politics to books we read and things we see. So when I write something I will ask his advice and when he writes something he’ll ask mine.
You have a deep understanding, then? A sort of musical telepathy?
Yes, something like that and at the same time, and I think that’s very important, you want to keep improvising music alive. It’s still not that I can completely predict what’s going to happen. He’s constantly researching music and he’s finding interesting stuff and playing different things. Over the years it’s like something new, something that keeps him searching for new sounds and ideas so that’s a part of the trust, I think; to rely on being surprised.
Your last album was 2015’s ‘Nachtfahrten’ (in English, ‘Night Journeys’). What was the inspiration behind that record?
That started with the title. On the trio album before that, ‘Weltentraum,’ we had a collection of songs and we were looking for a title and after a lot of discussion and ideas we found ‘Weltentraum’ (which roughly translated means ‘Dream World’).So for the next, we just turned the process around and at the first step we had the title for the whole album and I wrote the music and it’s quite evocative. For me, the title had a lot of associations with night journeys and what kind of music or atmosphere it could be and what kind of themes could be explored. So we collected songs of night music, some originals and others by other composers. A lot of stuff was quite spontaneous and done in the studio. I had planned some songs to be duos or even solo recordings and then in the studio we just decided ‘maybe we’ll do it as a trio and then find what we can do with it.’ A big influence on the whole pace of the project was the sound that (studio engineer) Adrian (Von Ripka) created in the studio, because there was lots of silence and lots of atmosphere and resonance, like giving room to individual notes and sounds. So the sound of the recording becomes a big part of the production.
Siggi Loch, the owner of your record company, was also your producer. What was he like to work with?
Everything we did in the studio is kind of collaboration between everybody there. For instance it was the band with Adrian, and Siggi, the producer. It’s like the moment somebody listens and changes the music. It’s not just in a rehearsal room or for yourself,and if there’s somebody listening it doesn’t need to be a thousand people. This also changes the music but if there’s just one person that’s really dedicated and just listens and tries to understand what you’re saying it changes the music and this is a thing that Siggi does quite well. He listens to things and gives us feedback that’s quite clear, like if he doesn’t get something, or if something is too long or something is perfect even, because sometimes you’ll do a take and somebody is really unhappy – that’s usually the case – because of a minor mistake or something’s not quite right, so he says ‘no, you don’t change anything.’ And then you listen to it back two weeks later and you realise he was right and we could have destroyed it by doing too many takes. He was also the guy that suggested the album title, so he was part of the DNA of the project from the very beginning. That’s a great collaboration, I would say.
So as a producer he can hear what you’re doing in a more objective way?
Yeah, definitely, because he sat through all the rehearsals and heard a lot of what we wanted to do and the arrangements. When it’s spontaneous, you’re full of doubts sometimes; you’re doing it for the first time and then when you listen to it there’s always a tendency to look into details as part of the group. Like how’s the touch? Rhythmically is it steady? All these kind of things. And Siggi is somebody who is looking from a totally different perspective. That really helpful.
Your repertoire on ‘Nachtfahrten’ is very varied. It ranges from your original songs to music by Samuel Barber, Sufjan Stevens and Bjork. Do they reflect your own listening tastes?
Yeah, I think all these different composers and music are around us every day. It’s not that it’s exclusively classical music or exclusively jazz. Or exclusively pop. Everything is there at the same time so if I think about a theme of an album or a new project I think I try to stay open for all kinds of influences or ideas that come from anywhere really. And then it’s transformed through the process of the group or whatever it is, the duo, or the trio, to make it your own in a way. But I wouldn’t say I only do one composer or one source of music and I think that’s part of the fun, the variety of sources and making it your own.
In the past you did a wonderful cover of a Flaming Lips song (‘Be Free, A Way’) and also Pink’s ‘God Is A DJ.’ Does that reflect what you have or may have on your iPod or something like that?
Flaming Lips, yes, Pink, no. (Laughs) That was actually coming out of collaboration with the singer Theo Bleckman. He suggested that. I don’t think he’s a big fan of the music, I that song came to him and made him think that it was possible to do this lyric and melody in a different way. And then we just sat down on the piano and if I remember rightly, basically I just improvised that arrangement and transcribed it later. So anything is possible, I think, if something is resonating within you – a lyric or a melody or harmonies – and it’s possible to do something unique with it, I think.
Your latest album, ‘Tandem,’ is a duo collaboration with French accordionist Vincent Peirera (pictured above). What can you tell me about it?
I’ve known Vincent roughly for about three years. In that time we played a couple of concerts with his own trio. During this period of time, we had two moments where his bass player couldn’t come to the concert because he fell ill or something so suddenly there was just the two of us and we had to play as a duo. We found out actually that that’s a lot of fun as well because he’s been playing in a trio for a long time and so you’re quite free in how to play and you can open it up and as a duo that’s a great way of working I think, it’s really open. And then we said okay, one day maybe we’ll have to do an album if there’s time and space for it. Now it’s opened up where we both have had a break on our own from work. So we decided to do a duo album. We didn’t have any big concept about what we wanted to do, we just collected some songs that seemed to be interesting or we had been carrying around with us for a longer time. Piano and accordion is a very interesting juxtaposition of instruments and I haven’t heard of an example of that combination before. So it’s a really unusual challenge to put these instruments together and find music that works. And that’s definitely something that’s inspiring for me: to find new combinations of sounds.
Which musicians have had the biggest influence on your own style?
Actually I’ve been asked that a lot and I find at different times I give different answers (laughs). At the moment it’s my teachers, who are apparently not very well known, but they’ve had a huge influence on how I think harmonically. Chris Baier is not a very well known performer but I studied with him for 10 years and he has a really unique concept of harmony so I have a lot of him in my aesthetics. And then I was lucky enough to have for a couple of years John Taylor. Like everybody who just met him I think will say he has been a huge influence on my musical being, the way he improvised and listened and gave ideas and advice. It’s been really, really great having known him.
It’s a shame he passed away, wasn’t it?
Yeah, it’s terrible, awful and unexpected. And too soon of course. Apart from that, I have a fondness for everything by 20th-century composers. At the moment I have a big Hindemith fixation. I just love the concept of his compositions and the same with Messiaen and Scriabin. Him, particularly, because I think he had his hundredth birthday. I listened to his work and was really amazed by the stuff he came up with at the beginning of the twentieth century. It’s been very inspiring.
Did you come from a classical background first and then get drawn to jazz later?
Yes, definitely. I come from classical piano music and listened to classical music mainly until I was a teenager but even then it played a major role …and everything else, electronics, and punk, and whatever, came later (laughs).
So what drew you to jazz then?
First of all I was always improvising on the piano without calling it jazz or even knowing about jazz. I was just playing my own stuff. Through teachers I discovered, when I was 15 or 16, this thing called jazz and it’s about improvising. I think it’s almost a cliché about the first record that I got as a present was the ‘Koln Concert’ by Keith Jarrett, which I really loved, of course, and then I was looking into Keith Jarrett’s music. I think the first album of his I bought was, funny enough, quite far away from the ‘Koln Concert’ – it was ‘Personal Mountains’ by his European quartet and for awhile this was my absolute favourite thing to listen to. From there I discovered more and more stuff.
Looking forward now to the future, what are you going to record next with your trio? Have you got any projects lined up?
Actually, we have an idea right now which we’ll try to do but I’m hesitant to talk about it because it’s just an idea and we’re quite excited about it. Next year we’ll definitely record something new and I think they’re planning on releasing it at the beginning of 2018. That’s the plan right now and at the moment I’m going to plays some concerts with Vincent.
See MICHAEL WOLLNY and his trio live at King’s Place on Saturday 12th November.
Tandem’ is out now via ACT Records.