Review: Michael Wollny Trio at the 2014 Cheltenham Jazz Festival

Michael Wollny, Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2014
Photo credit: © John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk . All Rights Reserved

Michael Wollny Trio
(Playhouse Theatre, Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 3 May 2014. Review by Jon Turney.)

Alban Berg, Hindemith, a piece drawing on Mahler. Hang on: is this a jazz gig? Of course. It is the jazz piano trio finding (yet) more new ways it refresh itself in the hands of one of its more determinedly eclectic new virtuosi.

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Pianist Michael Wollny has a remarkable technique, with an exceptionally delicate touch, I’d say, as well as speed of articulation, and a breadth of repertoire and influences that stands out even among the Mehldau-Iverson-Iyer generation. His Cheltenham set offered wildly varying episodes, including stirring free interludes, beautiful, rocking chords in a tune from the Flaming Lips’ latest recording – “gorgeous”, my neighbour exclaimed involuntarily as it ended – and a meditation on a 14th Century vocal that might have been imported magically from a Tord Gustavsen set.

There’s a ferocious musical intelligence at work here, whose impact is occasionally attenuated by Wollny’s reluctance to settle on one thing for any length of time. This night, anyway, he didn’t quite deliver the satisfaction that a measured exploration of rich material – such as, say, Kit Downes might offer – can provide. But Cheltenham festival sets are short, and he has so much to say. It is mostly just great fun following the switchback of mood shifts and jolting changes of idiom, like a train running over many sets of points at a complex junction, and there is plenty of jaw dropping pianism to keep the attention.

The equally inventive Eric Schaefer on drums has a convincingly telepathic relationship with the pianist and trio newcomer Christian Weber on bass kept his rich sound through every stylistic swerve. The closer, another piece that built to a rocking climax, had a punch reminiscent of the old George Adams-Don Pullen crowd-pleaser Big Alice. It probably reminded others of several quite different musical moments, all good. Wollny does that. But this set also displayed his knack for prodding the familiar in new directions, and finding unfamiliar elements to bring into his personal mix. For me, as for most of the Cheltenham audience, it was a first chance to hear him live. I came away happily convinced we’re going to be listening to this man for a long time.

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