Is it classical or jazz now? The pianist Johanna Summer makes me dizzy with happiness: Video, Photo

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Is it classical or jazz now? The pianist Johanna Summer makes me dizzy with happiness. From the innermost to the extreme.

It was just beginning, the corona lockdown had just started. I was in bed at night and could not sleep because I had worked without a break for months, and now I was too agitated. I was depressed that my concerts would be canceled in the summer. My reading lamp was burned out and I was too lazy to run to the turntable and do something soothing. I picked up the phone and googled myself – I probably wanted to make sure I really existed. I was shown a music playlist that I didn’t know and I watched it. I saw a cover with a not quite contemporary face on it. A German title: From foreign countries and people. Schumann! Children’s scenes!

I hit play and heard two piano chords that captivated me. Slow and quiet. Genre unclear. Then two motifs that sounded like Schumann. But after a bar it was over and I heard jazz today – whatever that may be. Worn, somewhat absent, not sad. I had just followed that when the famous foreign countries and people sneaked into the game. The shadows of this topic were varied, entangled, scattered, consolidated, in short parts of the original Schumann text could even be made out. Immediately afterwards, everything dissolved into a blurred reminiscence.

What the hell was that? Who writes such variations? Who will play this type of piano music in 2020? My nightly restlessness gave way to an excited enthusiasm. I heard the piece again and again, and the better I knew the three and a half minutes, the less I understood how this magic unfolded before me. Was it really Schumann’s beginning? And the original text, was that really the original? Did I imagine that? Johanna Summer? Who is this?

I turned off the light, lay on my back, and dawned away.

The next morning, I wrote to the 25-year-old pianist’s record label and asked if I could hear the rest of the record that was about to be released. I got a preliminary draft. Seven pieces by Robert Schumann were recorded on the back of the CD; from the album for the youth and children’s scenes. The first piece: lucky enough – first loss. A pairing of two Schumann titles. It starts with jazz, I can’t call it anything else. Free, binding, openly bubbling in many directions, yet introverted. The pace is moderate. After a minute, it happens again: Schumann fragments find their place. Luckily enough, this old music from 1838 mixes with this new music from the present and dances with it. After a long, driving, virtuoso stretch full of erroneous modulations, the orchestral game gives way to an increasingly economical, mystical key that searches and searches and soon only consists of a few notes – until the left hand, now in minor, is once again lucky enough remind.

The right hand remains restless and already suspects the first loss. Like colored leaves floating in the autumn wind, the fingers circle around themselves until the left hand – deeper than we know from Schumann – exposes the loss with hesitant gestures. A breathtaking ending follows: a fantasy, turned inside, fragile. A final dissolution in major from three naked tones, unaffected and conciliatory. Courageous to choose exactly this small chord instead of so many other exposed possibilities – after ten minutes of musical excess.

I don’t know why, but I’m obsessed with piano music that doesn’t allow me to draw a line between classical and jazz. I don’t mean Eugen Cicero or Jacques Loussier, who played Tchaikovsky, Chopin and Bach in a trio. I do not mean the jazz suites by Shostakovich or Brad Mehldau’s Bach approach. I mean expressions, traits and motifs that appear so free, timeless and universal, above all with Ravel, Debussy, Grieg, Sibelius or Nikolai Medtner, but also with Schönberg, Bach or Beethoven and also with Schumann, that they also appear from Bud Powell, George Shearing, Bill Evans or John Lewis could come from today or from the future. These people, on the other hand, always interest me the most when they move in these places and surrender to their influences. Unfortunately, such overlaps are usually only fragmentary exceptional phenomena, but their musical core is essential because something is created that does not make it clear when and in what context it was created. Something that is free of itself and of gesture. Something new.

The problem here: jazz is dead. I am one of those for whom jazz ceased to exist in the early 1970s. The 1970s turned pianists like Herbie Hancock into keyboard players. You created Chick Corea and his fusion nonsense. And they turned the jazz archetype Quincy Jones into a Michael Jackson producer. Even a genius like Keith Jarrett could not escape the spirit of the times, and he wasted his talent on doing the jazz album of the 1970s – his Cologne Concert. A bestseller full of endless flashes, in which he penetrates the enthusiastic audience rhythmically, harmoniously and repetitively with his overheated ostinato blues folk and his oriental scales like a screaming child. Sticky kitsch strewn between them. Beguiled by himself. An example of the despair faced by pianists who were to develop the work of Thelonius Monk, Oscar Peterson or Dave Brubeck. The Cologne Concert is a natural event, a waterfall. Intoxicating. But a waterfall will never depict the depths, the vastness, the waves, the many faces, colors and textures of an ocean.

The Schumann kaleidoscope by Johanna Summer manages to be exactly that: an ocean. Her pianistic skills are never the focus. They serve the music that it creates. In the same way, however, her musical ideas never stand in the way of her virtuoso, flaming play. Whatever she has learned in her jazz studies in Dresden, her music has an inner life. Detached from the author and interpreter, from ability and willing, from past and present. If in the second piece Summers jazz concepts are brought together with May, dear May and the knight of the hobby horse, then I will be dizzy with happiness. The ideas are so rich that you no longer know where you are, where Schumann is, where Summer is. She never makes use of clichés, and yet there are passages in her jazz in which the spirit of Scriabin talks to Scarlatti in a completely original way, then refers to Bach, then to Bartók, to finally answer Schumann again and with him Even then, Keith Jarrett would have stayed more with himself to suggest hobby horse how the terrible Cologne Concert could have sounded.

Tormenting uncertainty: what is improvised? What is composed? Are these loose modules that have been combined? And always the big question: what is summer, what is Schumann? What do I imagine to hear, what is actually being played? A 38-minute border made up of 88 keys, which dissolves again and again.

Then we met, Johanna and I. We wanted to listen to their album together and talk about it. “Everything is improvised. From start to finish,” she said. Point. Incomprehensible. Only the motifs of the Schumann pieces had previously been selected as the base and superstructure. I was amazed by the many surprises that concentrated listening had to offer. We talked about hidden breaks, about the studio recordings in Cologne, about “mistakes” that weren’t at all, and about Schumann motifs that did not come from Schumann. She explained to me her loud, bad, quick servant Ruprecht and his transformation into her reverie. Micro details. Satisfied curiosity.

Nevertheless, everything remained a mystery.

On the Miles Davis album Kind of Blue, there are a few final bars in the piece Blue in Green that Bill Evans plays on the piano alone. Not only what he plays is remarkable. No matter how often I hear this record, I never perceive the transition from quintet to piano solo in this piece. To this day, I am always surprised when in the end only the piano can be heard. This process, which I simply cannot grasp, this imperceptible transformation from one to the other, is one of the most amazing jazz moments that I know. The Schumann kaleidoscope by Johanna Summer feels like a stretched, unique moment – from one to the other, from the innermost to the extreme.

Johanna Summer: Johanna Summer wurde 1995 in Plauen geboren und studierte in Dresden Jazzpiano.

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