The Madison-based pianist and composer’s newest work, “Elegy For An Undiscovered Species,” comes out on June 25.
Johannes Wallmann’s new album, Elegy ForAn Undiscovered Species, was born after the pianist and composer took a sabbatical for a semester from his put up as director of jazz research at UW-Madison three years in the past to compose a brand new challenge and journey together with his household. He ultimately settled on writing preparations for a 14-piece string orchestra, which he had by no means executed earlier than, and intertwining the string components with an improvisational trendy jazz quintet taking part in his personal compositions. The document is out June 25 on Minneapolis label Shifting Paradigm Data, which additionally launched Wallmann’s 2018 album Day And Evening. Wallmann may even be acting on June 22 as a part of Olbrich Gardens’ summer concert series.
The Elegy quintet consisted of longtime collaborators (famous New York jazz musicians Ingrid Jensen on trumpet and Dayna Stephens on tenor saxophone, and the native jazz bass mainstay Nick Moran) and new musical acquaintances (New York jazz drummer Allison Miller), alongside Wallmann’s refined, considerate piano compositions. “I wished the challenge to be one thing that will assist make me a greater instructor and in addition add one thing else to my inventive repertoire,” Wallmann says. “And I believed, ‘nicely, I’ve by no means written for strings earlier than.’ I believed, with the sabbatical—if I centered on composition, quite than efficiency, I might do it from anyplace.”
Wallmann knew he was not attempting to make an album that limped midway between jazz and classical stylistically with out amounting to both, and even an tour into Third Stream, the hybrid subgenre of classical and jazz. Relatively, the music needed to be solidly and identifiably jazz, and the preparations needed to deal with the ingredient of strings as contrapuntal accompaniment that interpreted the melodic strains as fantastically and respectfully as attainable, whereas the jazz quintet improvised at the usual that Wallmann’s music calls for. “I wished to convey the strings, who’re classical musicians, into this jazz group—in a means that labored with their strengths,” Wallmann says. “I didn’t need them to need to improvise once they’re subsequent to Ingrid and Dayna, these world-class improvisors. [The strings are] unimaginable at making music sing, and taking part in counterpoint.”
Wallmann had additionally discovered drummer Miller by way of a present together with her group Parlour Recreation on the East Facet’s Trinity Lutheran Church in Could 2019, the place Miller had performed within the vastly reverberant acoustic house of the church with sufficient dynamic management and groove to maintain the music swinging with out drowning out the opposite, unamplified devices within the course of. Miller’s musical and technical command was essential to creating the album work, as a result of the pure quantity of a drum set might have simply overpowered the strings with a very heavy hand.
Elegy was recorded stay on the Hamel Music Heart in February 2020, proper earlier than COVID-19 introduced in-person collaboration to a lurching halt. In some methods, the title appears to have anticipated issues concerning the pandemic that nobody in addition to an epidemiologist would essentially have predicted. The title evokes emotions of isolation, pressured introspection, and furthermore the notion of writing a lament for one thing or somebody you by no means knew. All are feelings and concepts that got here into extra focus for most individuals after what everybody skilled final yr. In some methods, recording an album with one thing as communal as a stay orchestra looks like a correct send-off to that point now.
Working with an orchestra in the course of the rehearsal and recording course of required Wallmann to put on the hats of bandleader, composer, arranger, and soloist directly, specializing in whichever position finest match the state of affairs on the time. He did, nevertheless, delegate the accountability of conducting the orchestra to UW graduate Michael Dolan—understandably, as having to conduct from a piano whereas navigating the instant risk of improvising a jazz solo looks as if a bit an excessive amount of for anybody to deal with, irrespective of how proficient.
“[COVID-19] didn’t actually change any of the method,” Wallmann says, although he acknowledges the looming X issue added some unpredictability to the combo. “The stress was extra at the back of my thoughts, like figuring out that it might simply blow the entire thing, that it’d simply all of a sudden turn into not possible. This was about 20 days earlier than issues have been actually shut down, so there was slightly time. However what had me apprehensive was the air journey—trigger Allison, Dayna and Ingrid have been coming from New York, and I used to be beginning to fear that due to the journey ban from China at the moment… what can we do if they’ll’t get right here? I believe we might have needed to simply cancel and reschedule it.”
However everybody acquired to Madison and the schedule was set. “It was a really compact factor, seven days from begin to end. On Sunday we began rehearsing with the strings, then the New Yorkers flew in on Monday, and each day there have been two rehearsals, one with the quintet within the afternoon and the total ensemble within the night,” Wallmann remembers. “Tuesday, Wednesday—then Thursday we did a live performance, and Friday and Saturday we recorded the album.” No strain. However the Thursday live performance was essential in making the music really feel lived in: “You may inform generally, based mostly on viewers response, that, say, the pacing right here must be adjusted slightly bit,” Wallmann says. “And having these musicians right here, I figured it was necessary to share the expertise with nevertheless many individuals I might do this with. We don’t have that many alternatives to have world-class gamers like Dayna and Ingrid and Allison right here. So I didn’t need to do all of it behind closed doorways.”
Wallmann’s place on the UW, after all, was additionally vital in funding the album, since some grants from the establishment made it attainable to correctly pay everybody concerned within the recording. (Most current-day labels are usually not solvent sufficient to finance recording with an orchestra.)
Regardless of the rigidity of the timetable, or possibly due to the standard of all of the musicians concerned, the recorded music doesn’t mirror the pressure that went into the preparation. Jazz, after all, basically lives within the second. Each efficiency displays the melodic and harmonic vocabularies and emotional sensibilities of the gamers at the moment, each in studio and stay settings. What’s fascinating about Wallmann’s album is how intentionally and deftly it balances the opposing wants of the orchestra with the quintet whereas, certainly, remaining a jazz album by way of and thru.
The music places paid to any lingering questions on whether or not jazz can work with strings in something past a ballad setting, like the type that Wes Montgomery soloed over within the mid-’60s: the reply is sure, however creatively. The needling strings juxtaposed in opposition to the oddly breezy theme of the horns on the opening title monitor present that this unorthodox mix works nicely. This distinctive character stays all through, in varied locations on the album—notably on the subtly hiccupy, uncommonly structured 3/4 bossa nova of “Longing,” whose really feel was impressed by Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Luiza,” and the deceptively easy-sounding 15/4 funk of “Expeditor.” (By the way, Wallmann says the piece is way simpler to play than the time signature would counsel: it’s truly one measure of 4/4, then a measure of three/4, then two measures of 4/4 in a cycle.) And the album’s concluding multi-part piece, “The Higher Idiot,” options probably the most memorable musical themes on the album, in addition to probably the most attention-grabbing association selections and interaction between orchestra and quintet. Miller’s drum solo on the finish is a selected spotlight.