Album review

Wollny/ Parisien / Lefebvre / Lillinger –  ‘XXXX’

Wollny – Parisien – Lefebvre – Lillinger – XXXX

(ACT 9924-2 . Album review by Jon Turney)

The ACT label has built a roster of artists that means you should expect the unexpected from new releases. The often explosive keyboard player Michael Wollny has the same quality. His name appearing first on this jointly-credited session indeed indicates it is full of fireworks. But they are not the kind lovers of his various piano trios and duos are used to.

XXXX album cover

Wollny and two frequent associates – bassist Tim Lefebvre and soprano saxophone wizard Émile Parisien – got together with the hyperkinetic drummer Christian Lillinger for four nights at Berlin’s A-Trane club in December 2019: no prep, no set list. Eight sets of free-spirited improvisation ensued, now distilled to yield ten short CD cuts with help from producer Jason Kingsland.

The results are mostly heavily-layered, mood-shifting, exploratory – toying with form while rarely embracing it wholeheartedly. Wollny, channelling the Krautrock you hear subtler hints of when he plays acoustic piano, sticks to multiple electronic keyboards. He is obviously relishing their ability to see-saw between different sounds and timbres – also, it seems, the quality these instruments now have to evoke the recent past. The curiously retrofuturistic air that these once new sounds conjure seems to suit him.

Lillinger’s restless post-Shannon Jackson beats don’t quite have that effect, although the way he hooks up with the electric bass, questing for a groove, and with Wollny’s synth sounds produces moments a blindfold tester might guess come from an old Bill Laswell production. Only moments, though, as the mix is constantly shifting, keyboards dipping into sound worlds familiar – from science fiction soundtracks, say – and unfamiliar, welcoming and, at times, a little forbidding.

Amid these sonic dramas, Parisien hews closest to a familiar style, only occasionally adorned with some electronic colour. His soprano lines ride the turbulence of the high-energy pieces, and centre the episodes, fewer in number, when things are calmer. The unfailing clarity and forcefulness of his lines is a delightful final ingredient in a band that could otherwise make music with too few handgrips for some listeners.

Even with them, this is a wild ride, if not positively hallucinogenic (a droll ACT designer has put the chemist’s structural formula for psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient of magic mushrooms, on the CD cover though it isn’t identified there). This might not get revisited as often as Wollny’s more straightforward “jazz” output, but it is a dazzling set of visits to a broader realm of sound this foursome could obviously explore further. If they repeat the method exemplified here, that will mean more extended live work one day. The lingering impression from this release is that they won’t know where they are going, but are thrilled that it could be absolutely anywhere.

XXXX is released on 30 April 2021

LINKS: Portrait of Michael Wollny on his website by Sebastian

Michael Wollny on Bandcamp

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