Johannes Wallmann got the recording for his new jazz album “Elegy For An Undiscovered Species” just under the wire.
The director of jazz studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison gathered 14 musicians, including a string section, at the Hamel Music Center for a week in late February 2020 to record the tracks for the album. Two weeks later, the COVID-19 pandemic brought everything to a halt.
In addition to teaching online, practicing the piano and spending time with his family, Wallmann has spent the past year working on mixing the album. Now, as daily life resumes, the album has been released on Shifting Paradigm Records. Wallmann has played a few gigs around town and will be playing with his new band, Precarious Towers, on August 7 at the McPike Park Sessions.
Over iced coffee at Cargo Coffee on East Washington Avenue, Wallmann spoke about discovering jazz as a youngster, the challenge of using music to fight climate change, and why strings in jazz usually get bad press.
How was the last year for you? Your album took quite a detour before being released.
I mean, overall, I’m about as lucky as it gets. I have to spend the epidemic with my family. My main job was teaching at the university and that gave me a lot of human contact, although most of it was online.
I also had the opportunity to do a lot of creative work. Thanks to the hard work and generosity of everyone involved at Wisconsin Union Theater and Cafe Coda, I always had something on the horizon in terms of creative work or an upcoming show. That’s what’s really difficult with music. We do a lot of solitary work – time on your instrument, practice time, composition time. You do all this solitary work in preparation for the collaboration. And there was so little collaboration recently. But with some performance opportunities, which were largely online but involved other people, there was always something to look forward to.
What prompted you to embark on this project? Do you think strings have a bad reputation in jazz?
A lot of times when people were doing a jazz album with strings, it was kind of at the peak of their career when they finally had access to those kinds of resources, where a big label would put the kind of funds into somebody like Wes Montgomery. Charlie Parker, I think rightly, considered his string album one of his best albums. I think at the time a lot of purists said that there was no such interaction with the rhythm section.
I think where strings get a bad rap, and that’s what I really wanted to avoid, is when they’re used as what the recording industry calls “sweeteners”. Basically long notes. This is something that can be replicated quite easily with string samples on a computer. And it gets a bad rep because it’s no fun for the string section. They are not really part of the group.
I knew that wasn’t what I wanted to do. It’s maybe the only time I can do that, and I didn’t want it to be a drag on string players. I wanted them to have a good experience and be equal partners in what was basically going to be a jazz album. I have a lot of classical training in terms of studies, but I’m not a classical composer. I didn’t want to create a hybrid.
The strength of strings is that in addition to the people I’ve worked with being technically amazing, they can take a melody and find the absolute beauty of it, and bring that melody to life.
How does the title track’s theme of climate change relate to the instrumental music? Because a lot of people might not understand that.
And that’s absolutely fine. I don’t want to tell people, “You have to hear it that way.” It was an inspiration to me, and something that guided me in music. But if someone else sees something else in it, that’s totally fine.
But the piece, “Elegy For An Undiscovered Species,” was born out of reading information about this incredible rate of species extinction that we’re going through. We eliminate dozens of species every day. And most of the time we don’t. I don’t even know we do it, we don’t even know they are there.
In some ways it is a protest. I am not a scientist, I am not a politician, I am not an industrialist. My choices have almost no impact on that. I am a composer. One thing I can do is compose music. And what I can do is write a song for one of those species, as if to say, “Hey, I don’t know, I never found you, we never found you. But the least I can do is write a song for you. Because nobody else did anything.
The very first time I played it was a few years ago when I was working on the piece. I was at the Sauk City Arts Center. I wasn’t sure of the title. It was kind of a disappointment. Then, during intermission, someone came and said, “I’m a biologist. I just came back from the Amazon. This is exactly what we do and what we deal with. I’m so grateful you wrote this. So I knew the title had to stay.
Tell me about your background. How did you come to jazz?
I was born in Germany, my parents divorced and my mother remarried to a Canadian. That’s how we ended up moving when I was 12 to Vancouver Island, about an hour north of Nanaimo. Munster, the city I grew up in in Germany, is sort of the Madison of Germany, so moving from there to a very rural part of British Columbia was a culture shock. But the people were wonderful and welcomed me with open arms. Vancouver Island always feels like home.
My mother started me in a preschool music program and piano lessons started when I was 7 years old. I liked playing the piano but I didn’t really like practicing that much. My parents must have bribed me a bit. “After practicing for half an hour, you can go play football.”
So I had a base when I discovered jazz. My school on Vancouver Island had a great jazz program. I would just go to the piano and spend two to three hours trying to figure things out. How did it work? How did it work? And I hadn’t realized that it was also called practicing.