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Johannes Wallmann’s new record finds a subtle place for strings in jazz

The Madison-based pianist and composer’s latest work, “Elegy For An Undiscovered Species,” comes out on June 25.

The Madison-based pianist and composer’s latest 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 post as director of jazz studies at UW-Madison three years ago to compose a new project and travel with his family. He eventually settled on writing arrangements for a 14-piece string orchestra, which he had never done before, and intertwining the string parts with an improvisational modern jazz quintet playing his own compositions. The record is out June 25 on Minneapolis label Shifting Paradigm Records, which also released Wallmann’s 2018 album Day And Night. Wallmann will also be performing on June 22 as part of Olbrich Gardens’ summer concert series.

The Elegy quintet consisted of longtime collaborators (noted New York jazz musicians Ingrid Jensen on trumpet and Dayna Stephens on tenor saxophone, and the local jazz bass mainstay Nick Moran) and new musical acquaintances (New York jazz drummer Allison Miller), alongside Wallmann’s refined, thoughtful piano compositions. “I wanted the project to be something that would help make me a better teacher and also add something else to my artistic repertoire,” Wallmann says. “And I thought, ‘well, I’ve never written for strings before.’ I thought, with the sabbatical—if I focused on composition, rather than performance, I could do it from anywhere.”

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Wallmann knew he was not trying to make an album that limped halfway between jazz and classical stylistically without amounting to either, or even an excursion into Third Stream, the hybrid subgenre of classical and jazz. Rather, the music had to be solidly and identifiably jazz, and the arrangements had to treat the element of strings as contrapuntal accompaniment that interpreted the melodic lines as beautifully and respectfully as possible, while the jazz quintet improvised at the standard that Wallmann’s music demands. “I wanted to bring the strings, who are classical musicians, into this jazz community—in a way that worked with their strengths,” Wallmann says. “I didn’t want them to have to improvise when they’re next to Ingrid and Dayna, these world-class improvisors. [The strings are] incredible at making music sing, and playing counterpoint.” 

Wallmann had also found drummer Miller through a show with her group Parlour Game at the East Side’s Trinity Lutheran Church in May 2019, where Miller had played in the hugely reverberant acoustic space of the church with enough dynamic control and groove to keep the music swinging without drowning out the other, unamplified instruments in the process. Miller’s musical and technical command was crucial to making the album work, because the natural volume of a drum set could have easily overpowered the strings with an overly heavy hand.

Elegy was recorded live at the Hamel Music Center in February 2020, right before COVID-19 brought in-person collaboration to a lurching halt. In some ways, the title seems to have anticipated things about the pandemic that no one besides an epidemiologist would necessarily have predicted. The title evokes feelings of isolation, forced introspection, and moreover the notion of writing a lament for something or someone you never knew. All are emotions and ideas that came into more focus for most people after what everyone experienced last year. In some ways, recording an album with something as communal as a live orchestra feels like a proper send-off to that time now.

Working with an orchestra during the rehearsal and recording process required Wallmann to wear the hats of bandleader, composer, arranger, and soloist at once, focusing on whichever role best fit the situation at the time. He did, however, delegate the responsibility of conducting the orchestra to UW graduate Michael Dolan—understandably, as having to conduct from a piano while navigating the immediate possibility of  improvising a jazz solo seems like a bit too much for anyone to handle, no matter how talented. 

“[COVID-19] didn’t really change any of the process,” Wallmann says, though he acknowledges the looming X factor added some unpredictability to the mix. “The stress was more in the back of my mind, like knowing that it could just blow the whole thing, that it might just suddenly become impossible. This was about 20 days before things were really shut down, so there was a little time. But what had me worried was the air travel—cause Allison, Dayna and Ingrid were coming from New York, and I was starting to worry that because of the travel ban from China at that time… what do we do if they can’t get here? I think we would have had to just cancel and reschedule it.”

But everyone got to Madison and the schedule was set. “It was a very compact thing, seven days from start to finish. On Sunday we started rehearsing with the strings, then the New Yorkers flew in on Monday, and every day there were two rehearsals, one with the quintet in the afternoon and the full ensemble in the evening,” Wallmann recalls. “Tuesday, Wednesday—then Thursday we did a concert, and Friday and Saturday we recorded the album.” No pressure. But the Thursday concert was crucial in making the music feel lived in: “You can tell sometimes, based on audience response, that, say, the pacing here needs to be adjusted a little bit,” Wallmann says. “And having those musicians here, I figured it was important to share the experience with however many people I could do that with. We don’t have that many opportunities to have world-class players like Dayna and Ingrid and Allison here. So I didn’t want to do it all behind closed doors.”

Wallmann’s position at the UW, of course, was also critical in funding the album, since some grants from the institution made it possible to properly pay everyone involved in the recording. (Most present-day labels are not solvent enough to finance recording with an orchestra.)

Despite the rigidity of the timetable, or maybe because of the quality of all the musicians involved, the recorded music doesn’t reflect the strain that went into the preparation. Jazz, of course, fundamentally lives in the moment. Every performance reflects the melodic and harmonic vocabularies and emotional sensibilities of the players at that time, both in studio and live settings. What is fascinating about Wallmann’s album is how deliberately and deftly it balances the opposing needs of the orchestra with the quintet while, indeed, remaining a jazz album through and through.

The music puts paid to any lingering questions about whether jazz can work with strings in anything beyond a ballad setting, like the kind that Wes Montgomery soloed over in the mid-’60s: the answer is yes, but creatively. The needling strings juxtaposed against the oddly breezy theme of the horns on the opening title track show that this unorthodox blend works well. This distinctive character remains throughout, in various places on the album—particularly on the subtly hiccupy, uncommonly structured 3/4 bossa nova of “Longing,” whose feel was inspired by Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Luiza,” and the deceptively easy-sounding 15/4 funk of “Expeditor.” (Incidentally, Wallmann says the piece is much easier to play than the time signature would suggest: it’s actually one measure of 4/4, then a measure of 3/4, then two measures of 4/4 in a cycle.) And the album’s concluding multi-part piece, “The Greater Fool,” features the most memorable musical themes on the album, as well as the most interesting arrangement choices and interplay between orchestra and quintet. Miller’s drum solo at the end is a particular highlight.

This is not stuffy or syrupy, or even particularly touched by a chamber-music feel. It makes use of strings in an inventive manner that is perhaps most remarkable for how much it doesn’t call attention to itself. The string arrangements throughout are not used as a gimmick, but as nearly a second, supporting keyboard, or at least another player in the group. It’s possible to think, in a certain way, that a sextet performed on this album—which is a neat trick, considering it was recorded with 19 people.

The music also deals with political issues, though in a very subtle way. The title “Elegy For An Undiscovered Species” was inspired by the ongoing struggles climate change has imposed on the natural world, not COVID-19, though it certainly took on a different alternate meaning in the wake of the pandemic. And the title of “The Greater Fool” refers to the practice of selling off bad investments until someone is gullible enough to be saddled with fiscal misfortune.

Not that the music necessarily hammers any of these ideas home: Wallmann says that music, for him, is a way of “creating community,” and that “because instrumental music is abstract—they’re not songs about something specific, even in the times that I intend for them to be something specific, that’s not necessarily what the listener hears—they can come up with something entirely different for it, and I’m completely okay with it. If I create a sense of meaning, that means I’ve done my job, that I’ve accomplished my goal.”

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For anyone who makes music in any capacity, all collections of recorded work are personal in one way or another. What differentiates this record for Wallmann was the realization of his artistic objective: “When you have something that, in hindsight, you feel you could have done it differently—there’s some things that you know afterwards, like, ahh, that didn’t quite work out the way you wanted it to, and so on… I have a couple of projects like that for sure,” he says. “But the last couple—Love Wins, Day And Night, and this one—they were exactly what I wanted to do.” Wallmann can rest easy in the knowledge that his goal was, indeed, audibly accomplished.

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