Interview: Michael Wollny

Michael Wollny Trio (Photo: Joerg Steinmetz)

“We feel more than ever like an organism.”

The G-Man talks new material, school and cinema with German pianist Michael Wollny ahead of Guinness Cork Jazz Festival.

Leafing through German jazz pianist Michael Wollny’s bio, standout titbits include “multi-award winning”, “one of the world’s greats” and “electrifying”; apt for a headline act at this year’s Guinness Cork Jazz Festival. What it fails to mention is that Wollny also happens to be an extremely polite, warm - and interested - conversationalist, not traits traditionally synonymous with jazz geniuses. Speaking from his home in Leipzig, Wollny is especially enthusiastic about getting the Michael Wollny Trio back to Ireland for a half dozen dates at the end of the month.

The trio has played a lot of concerts in the last three years”, says Wollny, reflecting on a busy period shared with bassist Christian Weber and drummer Eric Schaefer. “Many different places, venues and stages so we feel more than ever like an organism, so we don’t need set-lists or anything. We just go on stage and the music creates itself by itself. Having six straight concerts in Ireland opens an amazing possibility for us to continue to grow as a band and discover new things. I’m not just being nice, we are all big fans of Ireland as a country so we are looking forward to spending a week there, to talk to people and get to see new places.”

“Material wise, we just recorded a new album at the beginning of September”, says Wollny, obviously excited about the currently untitled record. “Somehow the last three albums have felt connected so this feels like a new chapter. For us it’s exciting as we haven’t played any of the new stuff at all so far.”  

Immediately prior to our conversation, Wollny has spent the day teaching at Leipzig’s University of Music and Theatre where he is a professor, educating young minds not only regarding the technical side of music, but also the communal aspect. “At the moment there is a real urge inside the school to connect between the various departments - the jazz people in their corner, the classical in theirs etc. - and somehow find ways we can learn from each other and develop something together. I think technical ability is a necessity, one which we train and help to grow with but it’s also about how you interact when you are playing a concert together. It’s not about showing off technical abilities or saying ‘I’ve studied this’ and ‘I can do this’; it’s something much more unpredictable. Like the conversation we are having right now. We both know some things but we never know how we’re going to talk together in the here and now and I think this is what music should be about on stage. Live performances provide the chance to collaborate with people outside of your world because you really have to make an effort, not to just show off your skills, but to find something together. It’s two sides of the same coin.”


Mostly focused on original compositions, Wollny’s albums are speckled with tracks more familiar to indie music fans such as the moody manipulation of The Flaming Lips’ ‘Be Free, a Way’ on Weltentraum (or World Dream English) or a throbbing rework of Bjork’s ‘Hunter’ for 2016’s Tandem with French accordionist Vincent Peirani. Unlike their Minnesotan counterparts The Bad Plus - famous for overhauling renowned rock classics such as Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ - Wollny’s trio tends to veer down a less-trodden route when searching out songs to inhabit.

“I think some of the pieces we choose to arrange or use for improvisations are mostly non-chart hits” says Wollny. “For example, I don’t think the melody of ‘Questions in a World of Blue’ is that well known to the general public because it’s a very obscure song taken from an obscure movie [David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me] that people hated when it came out in the 90s! I think the melody is so incredibly strong and slow moving and it fitted perfectly the musical idea we had: stillness. There’s nothing there, just plain chords and a four-four rhythm with no emotional outbursts; this was the perfect melody for the feeling we wanted to create at the beginning of the album.”      


Known for his adventurousness and openness to new projects, it’s a wonder Wollny hasn’t yet ventured into the world of film. “I didn’t write especially for the movie but there was an Austrian production for a World War II movie, The Woods Are Still Green, about two soldiers in the Alps that used some of my music. Cinema is really important to me and a big point of influence on lots of ideas I have about tunes and arrangements and formal ideas about structures and the bigger rhythm and even shaping the projects. I think this is how a director on a film set must feel putting together musicians, instruments, creating sceneries and situations on stage. Even though I have no idea about working on a film set cinema it very much speaks to me.”

The above article was originally published in Cork's Evening Echo Thursday 20th October 2017

For more on Michael Wollny visit:

- Michael Wollny Trio play Triskel Sunday 29th October with Sue Rynhart Trio as part of Cork Jazz Festival
- Tickets priced at €20 and available from triskelartscentre.ie


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