Johannes Wallmann, jazz pianist and bandleader: Something Else! Interview

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Johannes Wallmann joins Preston Frazier for a Something Else! Sitdown that explores the German-born, Canadian-bred jazz pianist and bandleader’s latest album Love Wins, his journey to American shores and the on-going fight for marriage equality …

PRESTON FRAZIER: Your current release Love Wins was inspired by the marriage equality fight in Wisconsin and the U.S.
JOHANNES WALLMAN: Yes, I got married in 2007. My husband, who is an American citizen, and I decided after eight years we wanted legal recognition. We were married in Canada in my hometown. A couple weeks later, we moved to California and they recognized our marriage. A little while later, we moved to Wisconsin – who, though we were married for five years, did not recognize our marriage. We eventually decided to join as plaintiffs in a suit in the District Court for Wisconsin, fighting for marriage equality.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Love Wins cleverly incorporates many elements of the legal journey, which eventually ended successfully in the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
JOHANNES WALLMAN: Yes, the title song “Love Wins,” and many of the other tracks, are collaborations with hip-hop artist Rob Dz. Rob is an excellent example of what you find in Madison. It’s a great music scene, where you may not find exactly what you are looking for but you find amazing people who bring something unexpected. Rob is a guy who you can catch at jam sessions, sitting in with bands – and he can improvise these amazing raps, whether it be funk, jazz or hip hop. After seeing him, I wanted to do something with him.

This is the first time I did something like this. I wouldn’t be able to write the lyrics. I didn’t want to do just a bunch of instrumentals on this subject. “Love Wins” was born out of sketches I’d been working on. I would take my demo tracks, email them to Rob and ask what he thought. I gave him some general topics to frame the lyrics. The title track was very much a collaboration. Rob wasn’t sure, as a straight guy, if he could address the topic fully. We had some conversations, and we were able to tie in the universal themes. It speaks to the community of people which transcends the LGBT community. It’s about love, dignity, respect and the struggle for equality.

PRESTON FRAZIER: “The Seventh Circuit” also features Rob Dz.
JOHANNES WALLMAN: Most of our co-plantiffs were able to attend the oral arguments in the Seventh Circuit, after the appeal from the district court. Keith, my husband, and I were not available. The circuit court makes available audio of the oral arguments. I was listening to the audio, and I was surprised how lively and inspiring the hearing was. When I listened to the trial, that’s when I got the concept for the album: I thought, “This would be great to set to music.” I also realized that, among all the plaintiffs, I was the only composer. Why not write music from a personal perspective about this experience?

I talked to Rob Dz at a jam session, and came up with the concept. For the song, “The Seventh Circuit,” we took hours of court proceedings and used about three minutes or so. It’s pretty engrossing stuff. Musically, my approach was a little different from the other tracks. It was arranged for a small group and, by the time we recorded it in the studio, it was fairly well fleshed out. There was still room for improvisation, but the grooves on the song are different than some of the tracks on the album Love Wins. I took a Bitches Brew approach, recording 40 minutes of music and then re-editing it on Protools.

PRESTON FRAZIER: The song “Can I Know (More Love)” is a lovely contrast to “The Seventh Circuit.”
JOHANNES WALLMAN: Yes, there are a number of players who I wanted to include on the album. For this song, the Madison-based singer Jan Wheaton, who’s highly respected in the community, contributed vocals. She doesn’t perform much, but I worked with her before and thought she would be great for “Can I Know (More Love).” Unfortunately, she had major surgery before we recorded the track and there was significant recovery time. While recovering, she did a guide vocal and several weeks later came down to do the recording. There is a level of vulnerability in her singing.

Almost every portion of the recording of the album had a higher level of complexity than anticipated. Saxophonist Dayne Stephens, who plays on the songs “Equality,” “Love Wins,” “Coda” and “Go On,” also had some challenges, as I originally thought he could travel from New York to Madison. Eventually we scrambled and overdubbed his parts, while he was recuperating at home. His EWI and baritone sax parts are fascinating. In the end, these challenges worked out really well for the project.

PRESTON FRAZIER: This is your seventh release, but some of our readers may not be familiar with you. Please tell me about your background.
JOHANNES WALLMAN: I was born in Germany, where I grew up playing classical piano. I moved to Canada when I was 12, with my family. I fell in love with jazz in a high school band program. I got a scholarship for the Berklee College of Music, where I studied jazz piano and composition. Later, I went to New York University for my M.A. and Ph.D. I went to New York at a young age, 17 and, like most youngsters, made the most of New York. It was great being surrounded by all the great players. I probably spent more time in New York than anywhere else.

PRESTON FRAZIER: When did you start classical piano?
JOHANNES WALLMAN: Age 7. My parents were very supportive of me. Classical was a great foundation but by the time I arrived at Berklee, jazz was my passion. After Berklee, I was surrounded by great musicians in New York, and wanted to perform. I also started my master’s program while in New York. I began to feel that I could teach, and that could open doors. As it turned out, it opened lots of doors, and I got a teaching opportunity and discovered I enjoyed it and was good at it. I decided to be the best musician I could, and the best teacher. I’ve been trying to have a balance between teaching and performing, with neither one dominating. They complement each other. It’s also impacted my playing, in that I’m not only showing people what I do but I reflect on what I do and how I do it, to explain it to others. I found a balance in New York that I was very happy with.

JOHANNES WALLMAN: You relocated to California after New York?
PRESTON FRAZIER: Yes, to Oakland at California State University. I didn’t get a lot of playing opportunities. The club scene was contracting. I soon moved to Wisconsin and found a new environment with wonderfully fine players and a passionate audience. My current teaching role is Director of Jazz Studies at Wisconsin. It’s been a great move for me.

PRESTON FRAZIER: The places you’ve been have very different jazz communities.
JOHANNES WALLMAN: Yes, Madison is one of the birth places of liberalism. It has a rich culture.

PRESTON FRAZIER: How long did it take to record Love Wins?
JOHANNES WALLMAN: It was recorded in Madison, Wis., over a year-long period on Protools. The basic tracks took about three days. The overdubs took a while, as I tried different things and wanted to get the right fit. I’m really proud of how the compositions turned out. “Stonewall Was a Riot,” for instance, is a great, joyous celebration of the victory, and also a reminder that the LGBT struggle started with an act of civil disobedience. People tend to attempt to discredit movements – Black Lives Matter, for example – by classifying things as a riot. Good things have come from civil disobedience. There can be positive messages, and also recognizing people who are marginalized.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Please tell us your Top 5 all-time favorite albums.
JOHANNES WALLMAN: I fall in love with new albums I hear all the time, but here are a five classics that have been in continuous rotation for me for a couple of decades. I can’t imagine ever getting sick of: John Coltrane’s Africa Brass, Miles Davis’ Nefertiti, Herbie Hancock’s The Prisoner, Kenny Wheeler’s Deer Wan and Dave Holland’s Extensions.

Preston Frazier

Preston Frazier

Preston Frazier is a bass-playing lawyer living in Atlanta. His first Steely Dan exposure was with an eight-track cassette of 'Pretzel Logic.' He can be reached at [email protected]; follow him on Twitter: @slangofages. Contact Something Else! at [email protected]
Preston Frazier
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