Don’t Explain - Live in Concert
Saturday, January 19, 2013
Reviewed by: Ian Mann
A fascinating musical dialogue from musicians of different generations but with a shared vision
Heinz Sauer and Michael Wollny
“Don’t Explain – Live in Concert”
ACT Music + Vision ACT 9549-2)
This live concert recording made in September 2012 was intended as a celebration of the 80th birthday of the veteran German tenor sax improviser Heinz Sauer who reached this milestone on Christmas Day 2012. The record is also a celebration of the first ten years of this remarkable cross generational collaboration. Wollny was just twenty three when he first met Sauer and the duo played their first concert on the tiny stage at the Stadtkirsch in Darmstadt in 2003. In 2013 they returned to the same church and documented the experience on this remarkable new album.
Sauer has had a long and distinguished jazz career working with both European and American musicians, among them saxophonists George Adams, Archie Shepp and Bennie Wallace, trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff, bassist Dave Holland, drummer Jack DeJohnette and pianist Bob Degen. He has also played with two of the most influential European large ensembles, Alexander von Schlippenbach’s Globe Unity Orchestra and the NDR Big Band.
Wollny is best known for his leadership of the exciting contemporary piano trio alongside bassist Eva Kruse and drummer Eric Schaeffer. The trio have released a total of five acclaimed albums, one of these a live recording, and Wollny has also released two solo piano albums, the Gothic tinged “Hexentanz” and “Wunderkammer”.
As a duo Sauer and Wollny have released two studio albums on ACT, “Melancholia” (2005) and “Certain Beauty” (2006), the title of the latter taken from an Albert Mangelsdorff composition. The 2010 release “If (Blue) Then (Blue)” then featured Sauer in a series of sax/piano duets with Wollny and fellow pianist Joachim Kuhn although the two pianists did not actually appear together. However an excellent concert set recorded at Schloss Elmau in 2009 features Wollny and Kuhn operating both solo and in tandem on a thrilling series of piano pieces.
Sauer plays all the instruments of the saxophone family but has chosen to specialise on tenor in recent years. He is still an explorer who continues to push at the boundsaries of his chosen instrument and in the younger Wollny he has clearly found a kindred spirit. Wollny describes their music making as “giving up the control and seeing what happens” while Sauer speaks of being “open for the space, for the audience, the atmosphere and the vibes that reach us during the concert. A musical tightrope act without a net”. There is certainly a remarkable telepathy between them and a tremendous sense of empathy, Wollny sounds very different when he plays with Sauer than he does on his other recordings. The duo’s music is understated but nonetheless there’s a certain rigour about their work as they delicately push the envelope on a fascinating selection of pieces drawn from jazz, rock and pop plus a smattering of original material. Everything is carefully considered and not a note is wasted.
The album commences with the duo’s version of Miles Davis’ “All Blues”, a tune that they also tackled on the “(If) Blue (Then) Blue” album. However this is no standard run through of a familiar theme, Sauer and Wollny make the piece very much their own as they probe and tease the contours and harmonies of the composition. Sauer’s tone is deep, breathy and ruminative as Wollny shadows him faithfully, the rapport between these two musicians of different generations is palpable as they mould Davis’ piece into a virtually new composition.
There’s a similar intimacy about the duo’s interpretation of pop songs. The pair first tackled Princes’ “Nothing Compares 2 U” on the “Certain Beauty” album. Compared to the Miles piece they remain closer to the melody of the original and retain something of the yearning and sadness of the Sinead O’ Connor interpretation of the song. Sauer’s playing has a hoarse, plaintive feel and the duo slide in a degree of jazz sophistication along the way. It’s a hugely popular item among the lucky members of the Darmstadt audience.
It was perhaps appropriate that Billie Holiday’s title track should have appeared on an album called “Melancholia”. Like the Prince piece the duo’s interpretation includes a degree of under the lid work from Wollny, his interior scrapings complementing the hoarse, lonesome whisper of Sauer’s tenor sax. Sauer retains the same tone through much of the album, it’s a highly personal, hugely eloquent sound made by a man still at the peak of his creative powers. Not to be outdone Wollny’s playing on an extended solo piano passage is eminently lyrical with only his interior work hinting at the Gothic leanings he expresses both with and in his solo work.
Sauer’s brief original “Wenn der Pastor im grunen Hemd…” has an almost hymn like feel. The jointly composed “Open Fields” broods more aggressively and features some of Sauer’s most assertive playing of the set underpinned by the relentless pounding of Wollny’s piano. The third tune in a sequence of originals, Wollny’s “There Again” combines snatches of spiky improvised dialogue with lengthier lyrical passages, particularly for solo piano. Again it’s a piece that is much appreciated by the audience.
The duo weave their interpretative magic on a delightfully lyrical version of Bob Dylan’s “Make You feel My Love”, again proving their ability to take a tune and make it their own. Wollny’s solo piano intro is particularly lovely and Sauer’s ruminative, almost conversational tone exudes emotion. Dylan’s songs have been tackled by jazz musicians in a variety of styles over the years but this interpretation featuring Wollny’s gospel tinged piano is one of the best, even if the rather abruptultimately shatters the mood.
Sauer and Wollny first covered E.S.T’s “Believe Beleft Below” on “Certain Beauty” and the tragic death of Esbjorn Svensson in a diving accident in 2008 adds an extra poignancy to the decision to revive it here. The duo’s stately rendering of the tune turns it into a lament for the much loved and missed Svensson, there’s an aching sadness about Sauer’s playing here and the crowd, sensing the significance clearly loved it.
Wollny’s “Space Cake” first appeared on “Melancholia” and here runs the gamut from an opening lyricism to freely improvised dialogue via a rousing central section featuring Sauer’s most unfettered playing of the set above the exotic sound of Wollny’s interior strumming as the duo embrace the avant garde.
The performance concludes with the jointly composed “Kind Of Blues”, an obvious Miles Davis homage that helps to give the album a certain symmetry and sees the duo flirting with “conventional” jazz sounds for almost the first time.
“Don’t Explain” is a fascinating musical dialogue from musicians of different generations but with a shared vision. The rapport between the two men is palpable and both have strongly individual styles on their respective instruments. The choice of outside material is inspired throughout and the original compositions also maintain a high standard. Sauer and Wollny invest their interpretations with a high degree of musical sophistication and fully impose their own joint identity on the music.Theirs is a remarkable partnership.
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