SPR: What’s the first jazz record that you really got deep into and how did it shape you as a musician?
JOHANNES WALLMANN: The first jazz album that I really discovered for myself and the first one that I bought at a record store was Miles Davis’s most recent album at the time, “Tutu.” My music today isn’t particularly shaped by it, but it’s what got the ball rolling when I was a teenager. I fell in love with the combination of groove and sophistication that’s the hallmark of so much great jazz, and just like what I heard on that first jazz album, I still seek out music that’s for the feet, the heart and the head (groove, passion, and sophistication), and that’s the music I try to make, as well.
SPR: When you’re performing, how do you listen to your fellow musicians?
JW: As a pianist whose go-to format is the quintet / sextet, I spend a lot more time comping than soloing, so listening is super important. When I’m comping for a solo, I try not to box in the soloist, but rather to open doors for them. Ideally, whatever I’m playing allows them to comfortably continue on the path they were already on, but I’m also looking to open up possibilities for some other paths and detours that they might not have considered without me but that could be worth an exploration.
SPR: If you could play one show with a musician that is no longer living, who would it be and why?
JW: Ben Webster. There is an enormous generosity to how he played with his bands. And I know we’d be playing a lot of ballads, so it’d be a great gig.
SPR: How has your playing changed over the past decade?
JW: There is more grit in my music, and lines, harmony and rhythms don’t move quite as logically as they used to. Once the listeners or players have a clear sense of where a musical thought is going, I feel that it’s not really necessary to cleanly see that thought through to its conclusion. I know that my band(s) will figure out how to deal with me inserting some dirt into the gears of a song, so now I’m more comfortable scooping up lots of dirt with both hands, flinging it into an otherwise elegant musical idea, and seeing what happens…
SPR: Who is someone outside of music that inspires you and why?
JW: Climate journalist/author Elizabeth Kolbert has been writing about the disastrous path we are on for a couple of decades, and she does it from a place of deep knowledge. The existential dread of her subject is so enormous, and she’s been ringing all the alarm bells longer than most, but she does so with such grace that the whole thing doesn’t feel completely hopeless.
SPR: Where do you see jazz music heading?
JW: I don’t even know where my own music is heading until I sit down and write the next piece and then the next one, and so on. Over time, shapes emerge. But the 21st century media landscape and music industry are so fractured that there doesn’t need to be a singular jazz mainstream. There are so many technically accomplished and talented young players experimenting in all directions right now; it’s fascinating and very inspiring. For my own listening enjoyment, I love to listen to music that makes me tap my feet and that has melodies that connect me with deep emotions. I think most mature jazz players seek to do that with their music, but we’re all exploring different paths of how to get there.
SPR: How do you think we can continue to cultivate new audiences for this music?
JW: Music education is crucial, and jazz needs to be well-represented in it. “A great nation deserves great art” used to be the National Endowment for the Arts’ slogan. That could be interpreted as self-congratulatory shoulder-tapping, but it should also be read as a warning. If we don’t nurture the next generations’ understanding of and passion for the arts, we will end up being a country that is rich in resources and impoverished in culture. My city’s school district (Madison Metropolitan, serving a population of a quarter million in an otherwise highly educated city) doesn’t have a curricular jazz band in any of its middle or high schools. Can you believe that? How are children supposed to discover and fall in love with the most amazing and internationally celebrated art to come from this country when they don’t get to play it or hear it?
SPR: What is a book that you’ve enjoyed reading in the last year?
JW: John Szwed’s biography of Sun Ra (“Space is the Place”) was a book that’s not new, but was new to me and that made me listen to lots of great music. I wasn’t all that familiar with Sun Ra’s music or his life story, and this was a great introduction to one of the wildest, most talented, passionate, authentic, and indecipherable artists we had in jazz. For fiction, Brandon Taylor’s “Real Life” was a recent stand-out with incredibly well-developed characters in a side of university life that’s different from my experience teaching music, but that felt very authentic and insightful.
SPR: With so much unrest in the world, do you find yourself bringing your social and/or political thinking into your music and if so, how?
JW: I do. I’m highly privileged to be making music that first and foremost has to please me. I approach my writing and playing from the perspective that if I like it (and like so many musicians, I tend to be very critical of my own work), then that’s proof of concept that it can be likable, and then it’s just on me to find an audience for it. And for me to like my own music, I have to find relevance in it. On my new album, for example, that can be about finding the beauty in something (“Two Ears Old”), or heartbreak (“Longing”), but it can also be a protest against what we are doing to our beautiful planet (“Elegy for an Undiscovered Species”) and our incredible short-sighted approach to its incredible resources (“The Greater Fool”). I seek to express these thoughts or emotions through my music; although in the end, it’s instrumental music, and if someone else hears “Elegy” and for them it conjures up a movie chase scene, then that’s okay, too.
SPR: What are the last three records that you’ve been digging on?
JW: Jacques Schwartz-Bart’s “Hazzan,” Aaron Parks’s “Little Big II: Dreams of a Mechanical Man,” and Melissa Aldana’s “Visions” are all on heavy rotation for me at the moment.