The Süddeutsche Zeitung, Munich’s respected broadsheet, has called Michael Wollny a musician “who transforms any music imaginable into an experience which takes your breath away”; for Frankfurt’s FAZ he is the "perfect piano master"; and for Hamburg’s Abendblatt he is "the strongest jazz personality that Germany has produced since Albert Mangelsdorff". He doesn’t just fill big concert halls, he is also in demand to work as a partner with some of the most renowned musicians in Europe.
The pianist was born in 1978 in Schweinfurt on the river Main about 80 miles east of Frankfurt, and is unquestionably one of the most important jazz musicians of his generation in Europe. And yet he is anything but the typical jazz pianist. Few people work the piano as physically hard as Wollny does, his mind and body in constant motion. There is a viscerality about his playing. His inspiration can come from Franz Schubert or Gustav Mahler, from Björk or Kraftwerk, from Japanese gangster films or horror stories, in other words his quest for both the unknown and the unheard are completely boundless. His expressive power is irresistible; it comes from the sheer energy levels he is capable of, from an inexhaustibly rich imagination and from a phenomenal technique.
Wollny had his first piano and violin lessons at the age of five. An important influence was his older sister, who also played the piano, and through whom he became familiar with classical and romantic music. For him, as he explains, "playing the piano was always both about improvisation and also about playing Bach or Schumann." When he attended the Herrmann Zilcher Conservatoire in Würzburg as a junior external student at the age of 16 he was discovered by pianist and teacher Chris Beier.
Beier recognized Wollny's talent straight away, and took him under his wing as a young student at the Musikhochschule in Würzburg. Then followed the German Federal Youth Jazz Orchestra (BuJazzO), Wollny’s first trio and also a duo with saxophonist Hubert Winter. From 2001 Wollny was invited several times to play as pianist with the jazz ensemble at Frankfurt Radio, where he worked with major figures in German jazz such as trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff, and saxophonists Emil Mangelsdorff, Christof Lauer and Heinz Sauer. Sauer was so enthusiastic about the young piano player, he invited him to perform with his sextet at the 32nd Deutsches Jazzfestival in Frankfurt. That first collaboration ushered in a cross-generational musical partnership which has continued until the present day, and has produced four award-winning duo albums.
Musical exchange between equal partners was also the guiding principle of trio[em], the group which Michael Wollny - who by then had moved to Berlin - founded in 2002 with bassist Eva Kruse and drummer Eric Schaefer. ACT founder and producer Siggi Loch received copies of an unmarked trio demo recording from a number of people. Completely taken aback by what he had heard, Loch then spent several months searching out the name of the pianist. The outcome was that Michael Wollny became an exclusive ACT artist, and trio[em] recorded its first album "call it[em]". That CD was the first release of "young german jazz", a series which has proved a great success and still continues.
Critics couldn’t quite believe the music they were hearing: German magazine Jazz thing judged that "call it[em]" sounds like a summation of everything that young, truly alive jazz music is all about. Fresh, chock-full of influences, not populist. Something all its own". The German weekly Die ZEIT declared [em] to be the "most exciting piano trio in the world" and the Observer in the UK ruled that "this is the future sound of jazz". The critical responses to the trio’s following four albums went on to echo this hymn of praise.
Naturally, encounters with with famous fellow musicians became increasingly frequent. Wollny performed with people as diverse as Gary Peacock, Michel Portal, Jim McNeely, Peter Erskine, Vince Mendoza, Pat Metheny, Joe Locke and Donny McCaslin. Joachim Kühn, the jazz piano icon who was also the subject of Wollny’s diploma thesis recorded a duo album with him at Schloss Elmau. Wollny also established fruitful points of contact with the Scandinavian jazz scene which has been so influential in recent years. He toured – and still does so today – with trombonist Nils Landgren (both in a duo format and as a member of his bands) and with bassist Lars Danielsson’s quartet. And the title of the album which he recorded in 2009 with harpsichordist Tamar Halperin could also be an apt description of the many facets of Michael Wollny: "Wunderkammer" (cabinet of wonder).
By 2013, when the trio[em] stopped, Wollny had accomplished just about everything that it is possible for a young German jazz musician to achieve. He was so successful because he pushed his own workload to its limits, and also because he could count on the unconditional support of the ACT label. He won the Bayerischer Kunstförderpreis in 2007, the Bayerischer Staatspreis für Musik 2013 and the Binding Kulturpreis 2013. Then followed the SWR Jazzpreis in 2008, Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik in both 2005 and 2013, the New German Jazz Prize in 2011 and the BMW World Jazz Award 2009. and ECHO Jazz awards in 2010 and 2013. In addition to these major German prizes he won important international acclaim with the "Choc de l'annee" from the French jazz magazine "Jazzman / Jazz Magazine" and a Ronnie Scott's Jazz Award as "Most Promising International Newcomer Of The Year". The critics were on his side, he was receiving worldwide attention, but his impact and his album sales hadn’t reached beyond jazz circles.
That was all to change in 2014 with the album "Weltentraum", recorded by the new "Michael Wollny Trio" with his inseparable companion Eric Schaefer on drums and with American bassist Tim Lefebvre. After "heute Journal" and "Tagesthemen" had broadcast items about it, the CD even rose to number two on the Amazon charts for a short time, overtaking pop stars such as Beyoncé. In the UK it was "Album of the Year", there were three ECHO Jazz awards, the most ever for a single album. The recording consisted of arrangements of innovative composers such as Paul Hindemith, Wolfgang Rihm, Edgar Varèse and Alban Berg – none of it exactly what one would call hit material. And yet Wollny's complex but catchy interpretations made it into the surprising success story it became. Ever since “Weltentraum”, the name of Michael Wollny has been able to fill large concert halls such as the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, the Berlin Philharmonie and the Prinzregentensaal in Munich.
All this success has not changed his artistic direction by one iota. To this day Wollny has managed to consistently avoid getting stuck in a rut. After his experiments with influences from rock and pop to the second Viennese school in the trio[em], his many-faceted collaborations and projects with artists far removed from jazz such as Konstantin Gropper, Christian Brückner, Leafcutter John, Alex Nowitz, Uwe Dierksen (Ensemble Modern), his following trio album "Nachtfahrten" (night journeys) in 2015 – now with Christian Weber on bass - was all about paring things down. "Neon Nocturnes" exuded its magic with the immediacy of still-life paintings in sound – and had a level of success which was comparable with "Weltentraum". That success led him to play one of the Karsten Jahnke JazzNights – a concert format which is normally conceived as a double-bill – as the only artist featured, alternating solo performance with duo and trio.
In addition, Wollny continues to seek out the challenge to work on an equal footing with other exceptional musicians. A case in point is the French accordionist Vincent Peirani. Wollny instantly recognized him as a kindred spirit, an ideally complementary musician for his kind of musical storytelling when they met for the first time at an ACT Jubilee Night 2012 at the New Morning club in Paris. Wollny was invited straight away to be part of Peirani's ACT debut "Thrill Box", and despite all the commitments they had to their their own projects, they managed to find time to record a joint album "Tandem" released in 2016. And in 2017, together with Peirani's companions, soprano saxophonist Emile Parisien (both of them have, among other achievements, scaled the summit of French jazz with their victories at the "Victoires du Jazz"), plus the Swiss vocal artist Andreas Schaerer, who has just risen to international stardom, they formed a European "supergroup" whose work has been so impressively recorded on the album "Out Of Land".
It is plain that Wollny's interpretation of the jazz idiom is rooted in the European musical tradition. Classical institutions have therefore increasingly been courting his creativity – and his popularity: the Konzerthaus in Dortmund dedicated a whole series of evenings to Michael Wollny; the Rheingau Music Festival honoured him with a residency with various projects throughout its season; the Alte Oper in Frankfurt gave him a first commission to interpret Bach’s Goldberg Variations for a 2015 music festival devoted to Bach, and that put in place an annual tradition, starting with an adaptation of Claude Debussy's "Afternoon of a Faun", then with a work based on Schubert's "Winterreise" and subsequently György Ligeti's "Atmosphères". And in a project which is particualrly close to Wollny’s heart – because it combines his passions for cinema, "Gothic" and classical modernism – he has worked with Eric Schaefer on percussion and the Norwegian Wind Ensemble (Det Norske Blåseensemble) led by Norwegian big band revolutionary Geir Lysne, giving live performances of new music specially composed to accompany Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau's 1922 classic film "Nosferatu".
This collaboration proved particularly fruitful and received substantial acclaim. It was then taken to another level when Wollny and Siggi Loch decided that the orchestra should participate in the studio recordings for the new trio album at Oslo’s renowned Rainbow studios. One week after the recordings at the beginning of September 2017, the trio also performed together with Emile Parisien at a concert on the Wartburg in Eisenach in celebration of ACT's 25th anniversary – of which another recording was made. Then, instead of the one album as had been planned, two albums by the Michael Wollny Trio, "Oslo" and "Wartburg were released concurrently. This spontaneity and willingness to depart from what has been planned or expected is characteristic of Michael Wollny and also of his artistry. His way is not about taking arbitrary decisions, but about following the direction that his enthusiasm takes him, always in the service of music, and with the best possible result in mind.
He is about to turn 40, and also recently received the Bavarian Culture Prize. He will take on at least the same quantity of projects as he has done, and above all they will continue to be just as varied: in addition to touring the new albums, a major birthday concert for him will take place at the Berlin Philharmonie in May. And at the Hamburg Elbjazz Festival, Wollny will be the first "Artist in Residence", appearing with different groups. The realization of how much can be learnt as a teacher will also inform his work: since 2014 Wollny has been a professor at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater at his new home city of Leipzig. Just as he has always found his own surprising solution to every musical conundrum, this winner of eight ECHO Jazz awards – he is out on his own in front of the pack there – will also continue to bring wonderful experiences to every music lover. Wollny's style is unmistakable. He is an artist who is never concerned with trends...because he sets them.