Born in Schweinfurt in 1978 and living in Berlin since 2005, Michael Wollny received piano and violin tuition as a five year-old, and along with classical studies, improvisation was part of the curriculum from the very beginning. "As a seven or eight year-old, playing piano to me always meant improvising as well as playing Bach or Mozart." He finally discovered jazz when an uncle gave him an LP of Keith Jarrett's Kцln Concert. Sixteen year-old Wollny started commuting to Wьrzburg to take part in the jazz course at the Hermann-Zilcher Conservatory. It was here that Wollny met Chris Beier, Wollny's teacher from 1997 through to his diploma in 2002, and an idiosyncratic jazz pianist who prompted Wollny to develop his own concepts instead of following the academic process of learning the standard repertoire from second hand sources.
Wollny made the most of this freedom. He became active throughout Germany, played in the BuJazzO (the national youth jazz orchestra), where tutors Walter Norris and John Taylor held free jam sessions with the young pianist, rather than practising big-band arrangements. Wollny himself is more attracted to small units anyway. A first album as a leader was released in the year 2000 with Wolfgang Kriener on bass and Joachim Leyh on drums, the trio found themselves back in the studio the following year as a quartet under saxophonist Peter Back's name, and 2002 as rhythm section to trumpeter Hans-Peter Salentin. His duo with saxophonist Hubert Winter showed Wollny's attraction to this most intimate of group formats as early on as 2001.
Also in 2001 the pieces of the puzzle were starting to fall into place. Peter Back recommended Michael Wollny for the vacant position as pianist with the HR Jazz ensemble, which had been filled on a rotational basis since 1999 with the best musicians available in Germany. Thus Wollny, like his colleagues Jens Thomas, Hans Lьdemann or vibes player Christopher Dell, was booked into the Frankfurt studio II of the HR (the regional Hessian radio) to play with established protagonists of German jazz such as Albert and Emil Mangelsdorff, Christof Lauer, Stephan Schmock and last but not least Heinz Sauer.
Saxophonist Sauer, himself one of the great individualists in European jazz, is excited about the young man at the piano, and invites him to play with the Heinz-Sauer-Sextet at the 32nd German Jazz Festival in Frankfurt. Although seventy-something Sauer could easily pass as Wollny's grandfather, the musicians communicate as if there were no such thing as a generation gap, as Wollny's explains: "Heinz in no way tries to establish his thing. He brings a musical idea with him, and then he waits for what comes back. If you face a challenge like this as a musician, then it's no student-teacher relationship, although I see it as a great honour to be able to play with him." The attentive interplay of the two musicians is worth noting. Their first album Melancholia (ACT 9433-2) received the Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik in 2005, they then travelled to Oslo to record the 2006 follow up album Certain Beauty (ACT 9442-2) at the Rainbow studio with ECM legend Jan Erik Kongshaug, the engineer who is responsible for Keith Jarrett's piano sound. Rave reviews abound, and the French magazine JAZZMAN presents the duo with the distinguished "CHOC" for the album of the year 2006.
The collaboration of three musicians as equals on a level playing field is the idea behind the trio [em], founded by Wollny in 2002 with bassist Eva Kruse and drummer Eric Schaefer. Something exciting is brewing here: Bavaria, Brunsbek and Berlin. Northerner Kruse studied in the capital and alternates between expressive experiments in the Arne Jansen Trio and the electrifying dance floor beats of the Tied & Tickled Trio from Weilheim. Eric Schaefer may currently be the most interesting drummer in Berlin. He studied with Stockhausen's drummer Christoph Caskl and has won national acclaim with the band Nickendes Perlgras. In the solitude of a Gothenburg studio, it was this explosive mixture that produced the album call it [em] that premiered the ACT-series Young German Jazz in 2005. The magazine Jazzthing writes: "Call it [em] sounds like an inventory of young perceptive jazz in 2005. Fresh, full of free flying influences, not populist. A thing of its own, set apart from the mainstream, diagonal, shifting, nervous, frantic, meditative, movement, slow motion, dada, hip-hop, bebop" (Jazzthing). In the course of just one summer week, [em] celebrate their inception with performances at JazzBaltica, the Festival International de Jazz in Montreal, Canada, and the North Sea Jazz Festival in Den Haag. In September 2006, they released the sequel [em] II (ACT 9655-2). The three musicians not only delivered on their promising debut album, but also demonstrated a convincing growth in artistic maturity. The German weekly DIE ZEIT declared [em] to be "the world's most exciting piano trio", and the British "Observer" is convinced: "This is the future of jazz". Along with the praise there have been prizes and awards, topped off perhaps by the Ronnie Scott's Jazz Award 2007 as "Most Promising Newcomer of the Year". The trio played concerts in 13 countries and their entrance onto the London stage was hailed as "one of the most assured UK debuts in recent years" (Jazzwise). In spring 2008 the exciting Berlin trio present their third album. With the simple title [em] 3 (ACT 9660-2), they take a swing at one of the most complex statements in sound. They do not only break with the ground rules of jazz, they also find a brand new starting point for themselves and bring back to jazz what at the moment is so painfully missed: its urgency and day-to-day relevance. [em] 3 has been chosen by the French JAZZAMGZINE as RECORD OF THE YEAR 2008
Michael Wollny has naturally shown that he has become a notable international pianist by his contribution to the ACT-anthology Piano Works-Romantic Freedom (ACT 9749-2) that presents jazz piano in its purest form. Part of the same series as Joachim Kьhn (the subject of his graduation paper) and Brad Mehldau, Wollny presents "There Again", his first solo recording, and a debut with consequences. Faced with the prospect of recording a complete solo-album, Wollny retreats to the Swedish island of Gotland. He listens to a lot of Schubert, Steve Reich, Bjцrk and Joachim Kьhn. He performs solo at JazzBaltica alongside colleagues like Brad Mehldau, Marcin Wasilewski and Kenny Barron, and in late February 2007, ACT released his solo-album Hexentanz (ACT 9456-2) as the seventh volume of the series Piano Works. Wollny got rave reviews for this album and provided "further evidence that he is an important new voice on piano, his off-centre lyricism and subtle touch giving unexpected depth to the album, but there is excitement too in listening to these haunting etudes because also lurking among the mists and shadows of these well crafted moods are glimpses of a huge potential gradually being realised." (JAZZWISE).
In September 2008 Wollny meets Joachim Kьhn at the ACT Jazz and Friendship Festival at Schloss Elmau in the Bavarian alps. This wonderful musical encounter had a particularly special depth to it. It was a concert that rocked with unbridled intensity, and showed the profound respect these two outstanding German jazz pianists, each with their own individual style, have for each other. The results of this sublime pianistic occasion can be heard on the CD "Piano Works IX: Joachim Kьhn and Michael Wollny Live at Schloss Elmau" (ACT 9758-2) which will be released in March 2009.