Johannes Wallmann’s “Precarious Towers” gets back to the core of things, but it’s complicated

The jazz pianist’s latest album showcases a new quintet and a subtly conflicted set of compositions.
The cover art for Johannes Wallmann's album "Precarious Towers" is shown against a rusty-red background. The cover consists of a surreal collage of multiple buildings stacked on top of each other to form a series of teetering towers.

The jazz pianist’s latest album showcases a new quintet and a subtly conflicted set of compositions.

Precarious Towers offers a couple of very strong hints right off the bat that Johannes Wallmann is taking a patient look through the canon and history of jazz piano.

Wallmann has recorded and released new work as a composer and bandleader at an impressive pace, considering he is also in charge of the jazz program at UW-Madison’s music school. Six of his nine albums came out after he took that job, and across each he’s switched up collaborative lineups and broader musical and thematic approaches. He’s included a lot of excellent Wisconsin musicians among his collaborators, too.

On Precarious Towers he records for the first time with a quintet lineup of people he’s played with before but not in this exact configuration—Sharel Cassity on alto sax, Madison’s John Christensen on bass, Milwaukee’s Devin Drobka on drums, and Mitch Shiner, also of Milwaukee on vibraphone. For all that’s new here, there is also a sense that he wants to focus on the fundamentals, roots he’s never exactly departed from but wants to examine in a close, intentional way. It’s a good chance for both Wallmann and his listeners to ask what it all means from today’s fractured perspective.

About those hints. The title track opens the album in a way that recalls the joyously teetering melodies of Thelonious Monk, and reaches further back toward the foundational elements of stride piano. The second track is called “McCoy,” and touchingly honors the late McCoy Tyner’s ability to make the instrument graceful and massive all at once. Cassity’s solo on this track is a great example of what she brings to this record: It takes its time but amplifies the stately tension of the piece, like a bird cleverly riding the updrafts of a gathering storm. Then again, the closing track, “Saturday Night Meat Raffle,” is an homage to Frank Zappa. You can’t miss the imprint of tradition on this album, but Wallmann is not stodgy about where he follows those threads.

Across the record, the quintet is alert but in no hurry. “Never Pet A Burning Dog” (the title is a wise if outlandish idiom) uses Shiner’s flurries of vibraphone phrases to create shades of dissonance over the piano and sax themes, and later engages in a subtle push-pull with Christensen’s sturdy, insistent bass figures. The three-track “Pandemica” suite certainly doesn’t tell us exactly how to process the experience of the last two years, but does capture the displacement and fear that have run through it. The title of the final installment, “Defeat and Imprison the Conman Strongman,” suggests righteous anger. But the music ends up reflecting the ever-gnawing exhaustion and dread that has accompanied the onset of fascism in the United States—Christensen’s bass and Wallmann’s low-end left hand bristle against each other like two equally ominous possibilities gamed out in the mind. Even where the titles suggest an obvious big statement—whether about the times or about musical legacies—Wallmann’s compositions on Precarious Towers lend themselves more to spacious interiority.

Just as importantly, the quintet knows how to let conflicting elements blend. “December,” like quite a lot of this album, is easy enough to simply enjoy for its downright pleasant, lilting sequence of piano chords. That doesn’t stop Drobka from suggesting another dimension entirely—his rustling toms and cymbals offer a fitful counterpoint to Cassity and Shiner’s generous, fluid interpretations. There’s always something relatively straightforward to latch onto, and always a suggestion that you can look at things very differently if you choose.

The piano-sax-vibraphone lineup gives Precarious Towers an overarching brightness that really does seem to define the proceedings. There is still more than enough room to hear the importance of what Drobka and Christensen are contributing, and it only deepens the album’s deceptive complexity. The final two tracks, “Try To Remember” and “Saturday Night Meat Raffle,” will reward you if you’ve been waiting for some of Christensen’s warm, lyrical solos. On “Saturday Night Meat Raffle,” Drobka’s ticking pulse adds equal parts steadiness and unease, making you wonder the whole track if the mood’s about to turn south. The track ends right in the middle of a phrase, so who knows?

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