Johannes Wallmann’s ‘Precarious Towers’ goes back to basics, but it’s complicated – Tone Madison


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

precarious towers offers some very strong clues right from the start that Johannes Wallmann is taking a patient look at the canon and history of jazz piano.

Wallmann has been recording and releasing new works as a composer and conductor at an impressive rate, given that he is also jazz program manager at the UW-Madison School of Music. Six of his nine albums have been released after he took that job, and in each of them he changed from collaborative songwriting to broader musical and thematic approaches. He also included many excellent musicians from Wisconsin among his collaborators.

On precarious towers he’s recording for the first time with a quintet of people he’s played with before, but not in this exact setup – Sharel Cassity on alto sax, Madison’s John Christensen on bass, Milwaukee’s Devin Drobka on drums and Mitch Shiner, also from Milwaukee on vibraphone. For everything new here, there’s also a sense that he wants to focus on the fundamentals, roots that he’s never really left but wants to examine closely and intentionally. This is a good opportunity for Wallmann and his listeners to ask themselves what all this means in today’s fractured perspective.

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Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society Chamber Music Festival: Riches to Rags.  June 10-26, 2022. Madison and Stoughton.  bachdancing.org or 608-255-9866.  Image links to the ticket sales page on the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society website.  The image also shows an illustration of a house, with various musicians and their instruments visible through its windows.

About these clues. The title track opens the album in a way reminiscent of Thelonious Monk’s joyfully shaky melodies, and goes further back to the fundamental elements of stride piano. The second track is called “McCoy” and touchingly honors McCoy Tyner fire ability to make the instrument graceful and massive at the same time. Cassity’s solo on this track is a prime example of what she brings to this record: it takes its time but amplifies the majestic tension of the track, like a bird expertly riding the updrafts of a brewing storm. Again, the closing track, “Saturday Night Meat Raffle”, is a tribute to Frank Zappa. You can’t miss the imprint of tradition on this album, but Wallmann doesn’t care where he follows those threads.

Throughout the record, the quintet is alert but not in a hurry. “Never Pet A Burning Dog” (the title is such a weird sage idiom) uses Shiner’s bursts of vibraphone phrases to create nuances of dissonance on the piano and sax themes, and later engages in a subtle push-pull with Christensen’s robust and insistent bass figures. The three-track sequel “Pandemica” certainly doesn’t tell us exactly how to process the experience of the past two years, but captures the displacement and fear that went 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 terror that accompanied the onset of fascism in the United States — Christensen’s bass and Wallmann’s deep left hand bristle at each other as two possibilities. equally worrying that play out in the mind. Even where the titles suggest a big, obvious statement – whether about the era or about musical legacies – Wallmann’s compositions on precarious towers lend themselves more to a spacious interior.

Equally important, the quintet knows how to blend conflicting elements. “December,” like much of this album, is easy enough to appreciate simply for its downright pleasant and singsong piano chord sequence. That doesn’t stop Drobka from suggesting a whole other dimension – his rustling toms and cymbals provide a restless counterpoint to the generous and fluid renditions of Cassity and Shiner. There’s always something relatively simple to remember, and always a suggestion that you can see things very differently if you wish.

The piano-sax-vibraphone range gives precarious towers an overall brightness that really seems to define the proceedings. There’s still more than enough room to hear the significance of Drobka and Christensen’s contribution, and that 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 pulse adds both stability and unease, making you wonder throughout the track if the mood is about to turn south. The song ends in the middle of a sentence, so who knows?


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