Pianist Johannes Wallmann takes another leap with a 14-piece orchestra

Thursday, February 20, Hamel Music Center, 8 p.m., free.

Thursday, February 20, Hamel Music Center, 8 p.m., free. Info

During his tenure as the leader of UW-Madison’s jazz studies program, pianist and composer Johannes Wallmann has gotten a remarkable amount of original work done. In addition to frequent live gigs and collaborations on and off campus, Wallmann has composed and recorded in a variety of styles. On 2018’s Day And Night and 2015’s The Town Musicians, he explored the capacity of small groups (mostly quintets) to explore complex harmonic ideas while leaving plenty of room for improvisation and flexibility. Always Something, also from 2015, offered a refreshingly nimble take on big-band jazz, and Wisconsin musicians dominated its lineup. Wallmann mixed up a variety of formats, from small groups to vocal jazz to spoken word, on 2018’s Love Wins, which drew on his experiences as a plaintiff in Wisconsin’s federal marriage-equality lawsuit. 

In fact, Wallmann has released more music since coming here in 2012 than beforehand, all while working to re-energize UW’s jazz program and build connections between the local music community and the sometimes siloed-off academic music world. Experimenting with format and lineup is the norm for Wallmann’s efforts as a bandleader—for instance, 2010’s The Coasts used a “brasstet” lineup that put trumpet, tuba, and trombone in the foreground, lending eerie and atmospheric layers even to brisk numbers like opening track “The Docks (Oakland).” All this variety makes Wallmann’s approach as a composer tough to pin down. But in just about any format he excels at balancing sharp, immediate interplay with more elusive ideas that patiently unfold over the course of a piece, whether it’s the conversational flow of Day And Night‘s “Night And Day” or the slap-happy turbulence of Love Wins‘ “The Seventh Circuit,” which incorporates spoken word from Madison’s Rob Dz and samples of federal court arguments.

In a concert this Thursday at the Hamel Music Center, Wallmann will be rolling out another new set of compositions, this time for a combination of jazz quintet and 14-piece string section. The quintet part of it reaches across his connections in both the local and New York jazz communities: Madison bass MVP Nick Moran, drummer Allison Miller, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, and saxophonist Dayna Stephens. All of them except Miller have played on one or more of Wallmann’s recent releases as a bandleader, so it’ll be interesting to see how their chemistry combines with the strings, conducted by Michael Dolan. There’s also no telling how Wallmann’s voice as a composer will translate to yet another ambitious stretch into new territory, but this free show is an exciting opportunity to find out.


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