Repeat after me: Michael Wollny. There were no CDs for sale at a table on the way out, but there are more than a dozen albums since his first cut in 2005. There’s a smattering of European awards, but there were empty seats for his 10 p.m. at Max at Eastman Place Tuesday night.
Wollny inhabits a body that is little more than a container for an insanely great pianist. The intensity of Wollny’s expression leaves him barely able to sit still on the bench as he leans so far over that his hair brushes the keys, his elbows splay out, his left leg pumps rhythm at the hip joint, and the right leg curls up until his foot is nearly what is on the bench.
So here’s the thing. Even with all this gyration and even inside-the-case-string-plucking, Wollny’s physical technique is all classical and his line is all jazz. The lilt of his hand as if around a soft ball. The compositions he and his ensemble musicians have written in fits of inspiration to the Austrian composers Franz Schubert (1797-1828) and Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). The way he expresses a full dynamic range, sometimes with a melody, sometimes with abstractions, and every time with direction. This, my friends of jazz and of classical, is where we meet and experience something original.
Completely different, but also on the piano tonight was the John Nyerges Quartet at the Rochester Club. You’ll recognize the name because Nyerges is a pianist with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra…but do you recognize him without the tuxedo? Nyerges strolled through original compositions like “Monk’s Blues,” “A New Day,” and “Solid as Stone” by loosely fingering his way around the keyboard, eyes closed, uttering what could be a tone poem.
I wasn’t as sold on the other two shows that I went to this evening. My theme for this year’s festival is to seek out performers with a claim of fusing our American jazz with another ethnicity. At the Reformation Lutheran Church, I caught about 30 minutes of The Eero Koivistoinen Quartet. He made his first American jazz concert appearance in 1969 in Newport, but the persistent forte of amplified instruments in such hard acoustics became a wall of sound. I think of jazz as layers between which you can slide a wandering melody. Koivistoinen calls his work “collective cacophony improvisation.”
I had a similar experience listening to Djabe in the Big Tent. Big on the pulsing four drums and four cymbals (the drummer was wearing earplugs), but where was the jazz foundation, and where was the balance between the instruments? The third song, “Dark Soup,” had the feeling of a Hungarian gypsy, but there was an unfinished feeling to the line. And the group simply wasn’t connected to the audience, whether through eye contact or truly stepping forward to deliver a performance.
Wednesday night is a big night combination of pianist Gretchen Parlato (Kilbourn Hall) and then Roger Hodgson, advertised as “the legendary voice of Supertramp” (Kodak Hall). See you there!