Review: Michael Wollny and Eric Schaefer at Birmingham Conservatoire

© Phote: ACT / J. Grosse-Geldermann

Review:  Michael Wollny and Eric Schaefer
(Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham Conservatoire, Wed. 13th Feb 2013. Review by Alison Bentley)

Walking to the gig through the Birmingham snow and ice I remembered that German pianist Michael Wollny once told an interviewer he’d like to live in Iceland. But winter flu had been making its way round the trio [em].  Bassist Eva Kruse, her baby due in 6 weeks, had been driven home to Germany by the virus- but Wollny assured us we didn’t need to worry.

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After the white heat of most of the gig, Wollny introduced their Lullaby for Eva. (Wollny: ‘We don’t know it yet!’) The piece was unknown because, like most of the evening’s music, it was improvised. It had watery washes of sound, like Wollny’s recorded version of Berio’s Wasserklavier. Wollny likes to analyse his favourite films scene by scene, and it was like listening to the soundtrack of a movie in his mind. Images of sunrise and open spaces, as the sus chords resolved, faded into a dream sequence with gentle hiphop and eerie drifting arpeggios over feathery cymbal strokes.

6 pieces followed (spontaneously-named  Birmingham 1-6!), showing Wollny and drummer Eric Schaefer’s extraordinary rapport and skill, honed over the years (the first [em] album was in 2005). Occasionally, Wollny would pull sheets of music out of the piano, but it wasn’t clear whether he was referring to them or not, and it didn’t seem to matter. The ‘Birmingham’ cycle began with free improv, Wollny plucking the Steinway strings like a harpsichord, rooting everything with strong left hand bass lines. Things were constantly shifting, with a kind of divine discontent. He turned a wineglass eerily against the strings and used a phone app to distort recorded piano notes. Wollny began improvising at the piano aged 5, and still has a childlike curiosity about sounds.

Schaefer played some atmospheric soundscapes on his laptop, and Wollny responded with Ravel-like phrases. Schaefer was like Paul Clarvis in his good-humoured creative alertness, dragging a chain across the drum skins, tickling the snare with his fingernails, brandishing bundles of sticks, and tap dancing with rimshots. He’s played in orchestras, and the sheer range of his sounds and dynamics, as well as his virtuosity, was remarkable. He’s recently been studying Eastern music in Japan, and his mesmerising array of gongs, like ones used in Peking Opera, blended with Wollny’s fast pentatonic scurryings.

Wollny is steeped in Romantic Classical music, especially Schubert, and his fast repeated block chords recalled some of the latter’s lieder accompaniments.

Wollny’s harmonic sense is more modern though, and if there was a tense harmony available, he’d find it. He also loves Ligeti, and the latter’s Devil’s Staircase was in some of his skittering, impossibly fast keyboard runs. Wollny seemed to be searching for extreme experiences: he loves art horror films- like 19th Century fans of Frankenstein, using terror to provoke an experience of the sublime- a kind of jazz Emo. And when he played his fast chord tremolos, with frenzied fingers against the fluttery cymbals, there was a spine-chilling sense of wonder.

There were hints of swing and jazz ballad styles in Schaefer’s brushes, and Jarrett-esque lyrical solos from Wollny, with the occasional boogie-woogie bass line and bluesy solo phrase. But, like e.s.t, the Bad Plus and Neil Cowley, rock and funk influences are strong. Gorilla Biscuits had (mostly) 15/8 heavy metal rock energy and Liszt-like drama, with Wollny’s flying hair and fingers. Phlegma Phighter (‘Very appropriate,’ sniffed Wollny) countered any residual phlegmatic moods with its drum ‘n’ bass blast and playful sprinkling piano notes.

‘Every musician is searching for true and real moments in music,’ wrote Wollny in his Wasted & Wanted (ACT 2012) sleeve notes, and this gig was brimming over with them.

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