June 25, 2024

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CD review: Nils Landgren, Michael Wollny, Lars Danielsson, Wolfgang Haffner – 4 Wheel Drive II – 2023: Video, CD cover

The highlight is an unorthodox take on Lady Madonna, while pianist Michael Wollny makes for an energising wild card.

There are moments in gigs when the listener gets the sense that everything is really clicking, falling into place, when an inexorable sense of lift-off is being achieved, and that something very special is happening. The latter half of the Michael Wollny tune Polygon in 4 Wheel Drive’s performance to a sold-out Ronnie Scott’s was one of those moments. It was a moment to ask, to hope, perhaps…that this gig might be getting recorded… (it wasn’t).

In recent years, jazz musicians have started to lose their aversion to the contemporary pop song. The likes of Brad Mehldau, the Bad Plus and Robert Glasper have attempted to eke out new truths from songs by everyone from Abba to Nirvana, placing them alongside the interwar standards and show tunes from the great American songbook.

That wasn’t the only moment when there was a sense of a special occasion about last night. This band normally plays much larger theatres, so the chance to hear them in close-up was unusual and welcome. But there was more: it also turned out, improbable though it may seem, that this was in fact Nils Landgren‘s debut. He said how he remembers visiting the club in 1976, and hearing both George Melly – and (yes ’twas the year!) a punk band in the bar upstairs, but until last night he had literally never played or sung in the club at any point in the four decades since then.

4 Wheel Drive is a pan-European supergroup – two Swedes, two Germans – who tackle a selection of AOR songs (by Billy Joel, Phil Collins, Sting, Paul McCartney) that are so hilariously unfashionable that they’re almost cool. The group’s de facto leader is Nils Landgren, who plays agile hard-bop trombone and sings in a nimble tenor with the tonal characteristics of a baritone. (His singing voice sounds oddly like a trombone, something he shares with other singing trombonists such as Tommy Dorsey and Jack Teagarden.) He has an effective and beautifully bleak voice, but the vocal-led songs performed tonight often resemble the work of an upmarket cocktail-bar band, and this exceptional quartet only stamp their authority on these tunes when they play them as instrumentals.

7/8, giving it a jolting, propulsive quality. It is the thrilling, rapturous highlight of this gig. That’s All by Genesis is transformed into a fugal piano meditation, with delicate washes of mallet drums and FX-laden trombone, to the point where it starts to sound like an Ummagumma-era Pink Floyd instrumental. Some of the original pieces – drummer Wolfgang Haffner’s calypso Lobito and bassist Lars Danielsson’s proggy 4 Wheel Drive – are also great vehicles for the band.

All four are excellent band leaders, but the star of this ensemble is its youngest member, 40-year-old German pianist Michael Wollny. He is known for appearing in more austere or cerebral contexts, but here he’s able to let rip, spraying out funky blues solos, thunderous heavy metal power chords and prepared-piano explorations, sounding like he is constantly teetering on the edge of chaos while remaining in complete control. Wollny is the wild card this sometimes polite ensemble needs.

There are other reasons why this band can, almost as a matter of course, create something special. Perhaps first because it brings with it a sense of a freeing-up happening: all four members are bandleaders, and the feeling that this environment takes away the pressure from each of them, that it can give them permission to go in unpredictable directions was palpable. Bassist Lars Danielsson in particular benefits from having the solidly propulsive rhythmic force of Wolfgang Haffner for company. Danielsson’s light tough and high playing in his solo on Maybe I’m Amazed was a delight. Haffner also has an acute awareness of the right volume level to play at, and the way he can take the lead in intensity builds is something quite remarkable

The presence of Haffner allows other things to happen too, such as allowing unfamiliar sides of Michael Wollny‘s playing to come the fore. We heard the known tropes, like the music-box./ Wunderkammer aspect of his playing, above all on the Genesis tune That’s All, but in Lady Madonna he had the chance to stretch out with some purer jazz playing than we normally hear from him, and it produced all kinds of fascinating echoes and resonances: Fats Waller, then Errol Garner and at the apex of the solo, Don Pullen.

Other expectations were being confounded too. There are so many examples of 7/4 meter coming across as over-deliberate and leaden-footed (or have I just been exposed to too much Lloyd Webber?), it was a joy to hear a band that can set up a groove in seven and hold it and keep it really alive and organic, as this quartet did in their re-tooled Lady Madonna.

It was also a joy to hear the vivid contrast between Landgren’s singing (based on a measured, slow, lyrical approach) and his trombone playing (fast filigree and technically jaw-dropping, often with the fluidity and facility of valve trombone playing).

1 Chapter II 03:02
2 Still Crazy After All These Years 05:27
3 Hold on My Heart 05:17
4 The Sound of Silence 05:39
5 Just Another Minute 03:44
6 Sunrise 04:12
7 Spring Dance 03:00
8 Fields of Gold 04:40
9 April Rain 05:17
10 Your Song 04:30
11 The Wheelers 04:25

Nils Landgren – trombone
Michael Wollny – piano
Lars Danielsson – bass/cello
Wolfgang Haffner – drums

4 Wheel Drive II". Album of Nils Landgren, Michael Wollny, Lars Danielsson, Wolfgang Haffner buy or stream. | HIGHRESAUDIO

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