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The well-augmented clavier

Interview by Erwan Desplanques. Photographs by Jörg Steinmetz

Arts

The well-augmented clavier

Arts

The well-augmented clavier

Improvisation is a lot like a preprepared conversation.

The well-augmented clavier

Born in Leipzig in 1944, Joachim Kühn is a German jazz legend, one of the few pianists to have played with Ornette Coleman. His freedom to play, free from the modal or tonal system, inspired his younger brother Michael Wollny, 45, who wrote his dissertation on the subject. Since then, their paths have crossed regularly, both on stage - where their duo radiates - and backstage, where their friendship is growing stronger.

In September 2023, Joachim Kühn and Michael Wollny will be releasing the first record in a long-term collection launched by Château Palmer and legendary Berlin music label ACT. This DUO for two pianos was recorded live at the Alte Oper Frankfurt and will be available as a vinyl record. Cross interview.

Château Palmer : Michael Wollny, you were a fan of Joachim Kühn before becoming his musical accomplice and improvisation partner on the piano. Do you remember the first time you met?

Michael Wollny : I must have been 15 or 16. One of my music teachers played a Joachim record in class, and I had never heard anything like it. The sound overwhelmed me. I didn’t understand what was happening; I was both captivated and bewildered. I then went to see him playing a recital in Munich. He was perfecting his new harmonic concept, the now renowned “diminished-augmented system.” I spent the entire following year trying to transcribe and reproduce it – I couldn’t get the music out of my head! I finally met him during my studies. I asked him some stupid questions, I’m not even sure we talked about music!

Joachim Kühn : Someone told me that a student wanted to talk to me and ask some questions. So after the concert, he came to my dressing room. None of his questions had anything to do with music! Shortly after our conversation, the famous tenor saxophonist Heinz Sauer mentioned him. He said: “You’ll see, one day this kid will play like you…”

Château Palmer : And one day, your label ACT asked you to play together as a duet…

Michael Wollny : It was at a festival. I was excited and anxious, but I couldn’t say no. He was my hero, my mentor, the subject of my thesis! Fortunately, the anxiety and stage fright vanished as soon as I saw him again. He was interested, open, friendly, and warm. And the duet worked!

Joachim Kühn : It’s a pleasure to play with Michael – and an exception. I don’t usually like piano duets, because you end up hearing too many notes, too much piano. They lack simplicity, or the instruments blend together. But Michael has his own sound. In our duets, you can clearly hear who’s playing what.

Michael Wollny : Personally, I like the quality of Joachim’s playing, his particular intensity, and his refined touch, which is closer to classical playing while covering a vast spectrum. He also has an extraordinary sense of rhythm. I don’t know any other pianist who can improvise at such speed!

“Improvisation is a lot like a preprepared conversation”
Joachim Kühn

Château Palmer : How do you prepare for your concerts? Is it easy to find the right balance between composition and improvisation?

Michael Wollny : We send each other notes and recordings a few weeks before the concert. That’s often enough. When you prepare a speech, you don’t write it out from start to finish; you list the important points and then speak freely around them. Improvisation works the same way. You define a framework and then try to be as free as possible within that framework. Generally speaking, 80% of what we play is improvised, because that’s what we find most exciting. Joachim often says that when we play in unison, it’s composition, but as soon as we each play something different, it’s improvisation. I believe that the best result is when you no longer hear two instruments, but rather we give the impression of playing on a single, 176-key piano.

Joachim Kühn : We mainly rehearse the night before by studying the new pieces. Everything happens so fast. Improvisation is a lot like a preprepared conversation. It’s both defined and spontaneous; spontaneous because it’s defined.

Château Palmer : You recorded your first concert together at the Schloss Elmau Hotel in Bavaria in 2009. You then returned in November 2022, this time in Frankfurt, as part of a project led by ACT and Château Palmer. Has your playing changed in the last 15 years?

Michael Wollny : Yes, very much so. Fifteen years ago, I still found it difficult to ignore my admiration for Joachim. My knowledge of his playing was too intellectual and theoretical. This time, I have rid myself of this scholarly, analytical dimension and instead accepted a more natural feeling. I am able to explore endless harmonic possibilities without trying to imitate him. I feel the respect he has for me, and that enables me to play more freely, more spontaneously, with more confidence. When I wrote my thesis on Joachim, I was very focused on the technical dimension of his music. Now that I know him, I’m more interested in his poetry, the poetry of the man himself, the poetry of the artist.

Joachim Kühn : I follow Michael’s work closely, his trajectory, his career. I listen to him. I think he is full of ideas and he composes excellent music. As he has studied me since he was a boy, I feel that he knows me inside out, that he can follow me instinctively and understand me in seconds. That’s a precious thing. I like the way he plays jazz, very freely. That’s the magic we are all looking for in music. A current that flows – and overwhelms us.

“When i sit at the piano, i feel connected to the inexplicable, with a certain form of magic”
Michael Wollny

Château Palmer : This harmony can be seen and heard, and it particularly resonates in certain tracks – such as the record’s final piece, “My Brother Rolf.”

Michael Wollny : We opened the concert with “Vienna Pitch,” a song I was originally supposed to play in Vienna with Émile Parisien, and which lends itself perfectly to the duet with Joachim. Then “Eclat,” followed by “Fatigue,” a song about fragility that I composed after two years of the Covid pandemic. “Aktiv” is quite a wild track created by Joachim, offering an excellent springboard for improvisation. And finally, of course, “My Brother Rolf” communicates a singular emotion: Joachim spontaneously composed it for his brother, who died in August 2022.

Joachim Kühn : My brother was my best friend, an exceptional musician who inspired my calling. I heard him play the clarinet from when I was just a baby. He gave me a trumpet for my eighth birthday, then took me to see Chet Baker in West Berlin in 1955; that was the night I knew I would become a jazz pianist. His sudden death has been an immense loss. Shortly after he died, I was looking out at the sea from my terrace in Ibiza. I sat down at the piano to compose a piece, a tribute, almost automatically. The melody just came to me. I wanted something that wasn’t too pessimistic, a melody that carried a kind of joy, the joy that Rolf had. I sent the recording to Michael, who quickly understood how to play it.

Château Palmer : Michael, Michael, you released an album called Ghosts in 2022. Are you drawn to the transcendental nature and more metaphysical dimension of jazz?

Michael Wollny : I’ve been fascinated by ghost stories since I was a child. I love the gothic literature of Henry James and Edgar Allan Poe, the depth of their texts, and how they question the afterlife. One of my tracks is called “Hauntology.” I’m sensitive to the forces that haunt our lives. Through music, we can work on and investigate things that escape us but that are nonetheless fundamental. When I sit at the piano, I feel connected to the inexplicable, with a certain form of magic. What mysterious force guides our fingers when we improvise?

Château Palmer : You have also said that you try to push your limits through jazz, to create surprises, and to bring forth the unknown…

Michael Wollny : I’m interested in things that have never been played or heard before. It could be an instrument or a harmonic process. I look for anything that stimulates my imagination and opens up new territories. A duet can also be a kind of dance, a crazy ballet.

Joachim Kühn : I’m about to celebrate my 80th birthday and I can tell you that jazz still makes me happy and keeps me alive. I am increasingly interested in world music, from Africa to the Middle East. I feel that music offers increasingly abundant possibilities, that it is truly infinite. I know I’ll be experimenting until the day I die. Bach and Beethoven allowed themselves to test lots of different things toward the end of their lives. Something opens up when you get to this age, a new perspective, and I can feel it too. I’ve never played as freely as I do today.

“I feel that music offers increasingly abundant possibilities, that it is truly infinite”
Joachim Kühn

Château Palmer : You both also have close ties to the French jazz scene…

Michael Wollny : Two of my best friends in the music world are French: the saxophonist Émile Parisien and the accordionist Vincent Peirani. We have played together a lot, as a duet, a trio, and a quartet. I’m their biggest fan!

Joachim Kühn : When I was eight years old, my hero Martial Solal lived in France. I moved to Paris from East Germany in 1968. My first night was unforgettable, like a dream. I went to listen to a free jazz concert and realized that this is where I belonged. It was in Paris that I signed my first contract with a record company. I met Aldo Romano there, then Michel Portal, with whom I played in 1975 – we’re still friends today – and worked with Gato Barbieri on the soundtrack to Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris. France is also where I founded the most important trio of my career, with Daniel Humair and Jean-François Jenny-Clarke. I now live in Ibiza, but Paris is still my favorite city in the world – with Bordeaux as a close second!

Château Palmer : Speaking of Bordeaux, you are releasing an album with ACT thanks to a partnership between the label and Château Palmer. Do you think that there are parallels between making a record and aging a wine?

Michael Wollny : There are similarities. Winemakers also compose, and require intuition and an ability to embrace the unexpected. Each person involved has to strike a balance between control and acceptance of the unknown. On stage, I can’t control everything – my feelings, the audience, the acoustics – but I try to do the best I can with the conditions, the atmosphere, the constraints… You have to stay open and learn to deal with both nature and your own nature.

Joachim Kühn : Jazz musicians have always enjoyed whisky or wine. It’s one of life’s great pleasures. But after sixty years in the business, I can tell you that only fine wine makes you creative!

Michael Wollny & Joachim Kühn's DUO album will be released on 29 September 2023 on ACT Music. An exclusive "Palmer Edition" pressed on 180-gram audiophile vinyl will be produced in a limited edition of 500 copies. More information on the ACT Music website.