Johannes Wallmann readies his Sweet Minute Big Band

The jazz pianist and UW-Madison professor discusses his new project.
 

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Johannes Wallmann came to Madison in 2012 to serve as UW-Madison's director of jazz studies, but also has quickly built a strong local presence outside of academia. The jazz pianist and composer arrived here with three albums under his belt, and has collaborated energetically with local musicians, especially during a popular monthly gig at The Fountain on State Street (it's a different Saturday each month; the best way to keep up is on Wallman's website). "It's a very fluid boundary between my artistic activities and my teaching activities," Wallmann says.

Over the next week, he'll be performing and recording with his new Sweet Minute Big Band. Named for a composition from Wallmann's 2010 album The Coasts, the 16-piece ensemble draws almost entirely on Madison- and Milwaukee-area musicians. Wallman (who was born in Germany, raised in Canada, and has lived in New York and the Bay Area) says he crafted some new original compositions and arrangements with specific people in mind. "Everybody who's in the band was my first call for that instrument," he says. Madison musicians in the group include saxophonists Tony Barba and Eric Koppa, trombone player Darren Sterud, and bassist Nick Moran. (Here's the full lineup.) Ahead of the band's live debut at August 20's Jazz at 5, Wallmann talked with me about his plans for the big band and drawing inspiration from John Coltrane and the Homeland soundtrack.

Tone Madison: How are the plans for the big band coming along?

Johannes Wallmann: Basically, that's what I've been spending a big chunk of the summer doing, is writing for that. Writing for a big band is really time-consuming, because you go from the initial moments of inspiration to just a lot of execution, of trying to fix on everybody's part of music in detail. In a small group, where there's a lot of improvisation, you more people improvising more of their part, so even when they have a written-out part, you want to give them a lot of freedom to change that part. But the more people you have involved with it, the more you need people to kind of stick to a common interpretation of it, and the more specific you have to get with them. So I've been spending most of the summer writing new music for a big band. It's the first time that I've had the chance to do a full big-band project. I'm going to record this music in the two days following the Jazz At Five concert, and Jazz At Five will be the public premiere.

From a writing perspective, I really set out to write music that would feature as many people as possible in a way that really presented them well. Not so much, "Oh, here's a tune that we're gonna have six soloists on," but rather, "Here's a tune where I'm gonna let two soloists really delve deep into telling a story in a way that seems to really allow them to speak with their voice and feature their unique sound." That's a really Duke Ellington concept, to write music to feature certain musicians.

Tone Madison: And how does that approach apply when it comes to featuring your own playing? Were there any particular spaces or situations you set out to create for the piano?

Johannes Wallmann: Creating spaces for myself, that sort of took the least amount of thought, because I wrote stuff in terms of my solos and where solos would happen, and I knew what I liked. It's my band, it's my music, so I do feature myself more extensively than any of the other soloists. I certainly don't solo on every tune, and I really try to make sure that piano solos happen when they happen because they fit into the larger narrative of the music and complement it well. A couple pieces, when I started composing them, I set out to have piano solos, and by the time I got to a piano solo, it just seemed that there would be another voice in the band that would be a stronger fit for that particular thing, so those pieces ended up without piano solos, and I feel really good about that.

Tone Madison: Is it all original compositions for this band?

Johannes Wallmann: It's all my arrangements. Two of the underlying compositions are jazz standards. One of them is a re-arrangement of "My Favorite Things."

Tone Madison: I remember you playing that with the Fountain Big Band last year.

Johannes Wallmann: That's right, so that arrangement precedes this particular project but I knew I wanted it to be part of it, because i'm just really happy with how it turned out. Of course, the tune comes from the sound of music, but the real jazz history of the piece is from the John Coltrane recording. My arrangement is very much inspired [by that], but then very much finding my own harmonic colors for that. Harmonically it's very different from what Coltrane does with it. But, not incidentally, the two instruments featured in that arrangement are tenor saxophone and piano, because that's the inspiration, is Coltrane and McCoy Tyner. Certainly, I'm not going to attempt to sound like McCoy and I expect that the tenor saxophonist won't attempt to sound like Coltrane, but it's impossible not to be inspired by that.

The other jazz standard we're doing is a ballad, "I Fall In Love Too Easily." That's one of my favorite pieces to play on. Everything else is my compositions. A couple of the pieces started as small-group pieces. Two of them I've recorded before as small-group pieces, but I've always thought they could benefit from more having more colors in the band and having access to more counterpoint and additional melody lines. There were things going on in my head with those pieces that I always sort of wanted to put into place, and this is an opportunity to do it. The rest of them are new compositions that I wrote specifically for this project that could work as small-group pieces. One of the things that happened, too, over the course of writing this music, is that those pieces ended up being considerably longer than I expected.

Tone Madison: Were there any particular musical or emotional inspirations behind the new pieces?

Johannes Wallmann: The name of the band is the Sweet Minute Big Band, and that's based on a piece I have played and recorded before called "The Sweet Minute." I recorded that on [my album The Coasts], and working with that instrumentation, when I wrote the piece I was trying to kind of create tone poems that are descriptive of specific places that I either lived at or have spent time in or been inspired by. And even though I've never lived in New Orleans, it felt crazy to do an album with that instrumentation on it—trumpet, trombone, tuba, piano, bass, drums—and not have a piece inspired by New Orleans on there. In the end, for all of us in jazz, that's one of our roots. So that piece was very much inspired by New Orleans, and I tried to expand that in the big-band version of that. We're opening it up to have a breakdown section with all of the trombones soloing, to use the plunger mute for that New Orleans growl kind of effect, the real vocalization techniques, and for a while it's just drums and trombones. After they've been soloing for a while, the trumpets come in with some shouts, and gradually the saxes come back in, the band re-joins over time until by the end everybody's playing with joy and it's just a big free-for-all.

Another piece I call "Theme From," because I kind of set out to create a movie them for a movie that didn't exist. So I'm thinking very cinematically there in terms of—I have pictures in my head that go along with that. It used to have a longer name, "Theme From…." followed by an imaginary movie title, but I thought, I really don't want to tell the audience what they should imagine with it, but rather just give them an opportunity to imagine something. I love what happens in movie soundtracks. I think it's one of the most creative areas in modern music that really touches a wide range of people.

Tone Madison: Any particular favorites?

Johannes Wallmann: Yeah, but it's really very much the broader concept of it. Audiences are willing to, and really enjoy, some very challenging music, music that may be pretty atonal, for example, and innovative in terms of the tambours that are happening, that they would never sit through in a symphony concert. No matter how much Beethoven and Mozart you sandwich in between, people would leave at intermission if you put that in a concert. But if it's part of a movie, part of a narrative, they love it.

One example I've been really inspired by is the Showtime series Homeland, which has great jazz in the background, including some music by a Polish jazz trumpet player, Tomasz Stanko. He's been very active for a long time in the Polish free-jazz scene, so how many Americans would really know who this is? But it's a perfect fit for the series, it really creates a beautiful atmosphere, but the music can very much stand on its own. My piece "Theme From" sounds very different from Tomasz Stanko, but it's that inspiration, that music can have a second life when put with images.