Michael Wollny Trio Live: Wartburg (ACT)

Review of album documenting a concert in a medieval castle, with guest slot from saxophonist Emile Parisien

Cover of Michael Wollny Trio album Wartburg
Cover of Michael Wollny Trio album Wartburg

There are now more important European jazz pianists than ever before. Like many, Michael Wollny of Germany was conservatory-trained and converted to jazz before he was 20. It has been said that converts to a belief system become its most zealous adherents. Often, European pianists possess classical chops and erudition but, once liberated from fidelity to the text, improvise like there’s no tomorrow. Based on his articulate liner notes for this album, Wollny has thought long and hard about improvisation and the creative responsibilities that come with it.

Wartburg documents a concert in a medieval castle by Wollny’s working trio with bassist Christian Weber and drummer Eric Schaefer. For the last half, they are joined by French soprano saxophonist Emile Parisien, in his first meeting with the trio. While the music feels spontaneous and impulsive throughout, it’s not without formal centers. It flows without breaks through 11 specific momentary gathering points. Some are as dignified and cyclical as fugues, like “Atavus.” One is an actual classical fugue interlude by Paul Hindemith. Every piece ends far from where it began; Hindemith’s “Interludium” becomes the nastiest groove on the album. Some pieces fly into a whirlwind, like “Perpetuum Mobile.” Collective inventions in the moment like “Synonym” launch Wollny into ecstasies of (almost) straight-ahead swing. “Big Louise” is a dark, desolate dirge by singer/songwriter/cult icon Scott Walker. The trio finds fascinating songs, then breaks them apart.

This is music of impressive range, technical expertise and (perhaps surprisingly for a work so adventurous) taste. Wollny turns his imagination loose in search of beauty and often finds it, especially in his collaborations with Parisien, whose saxophone sound is pure and whose lyricism is extravagant. Their duet on Bob Brookmeyer’s harmonically provocative “White Blues” is made from Wollny’s dramatic hesitations and Parisien’s exhilarating releases.

Preview, buy or download Wartburg on Amazon!

Thomas Conrad

Thomas Conrad has a BA from the University of Utah and an MA from the University of Iowa (where he attended the Writers Workshop). He taught English at Central State University in Ohio, then left the academic world for the private sector. His affiliation with publications such as JazzTimes, Stereophile, The New York City Jazz Record and DownBeat has enabled him to sustain active involvement in two of his passions: music and writing.