Oh my, this is going to be embarrassing.
See, there is this small pub plus a few other smaller venues I have frequented regularly (since the middle 90s) to see a couple of friends or other acquainted bands and groups play live. You know, the kind venue for weekend gigs that attracts life-long friends and fans plus a bunch of walk-ins who just want to have a good time on a Friday or Saturday night. After a while, you get to know the regulars, both musicians and guests, you get a feeling for the local music scene and, most importantly, you can watch the genesis of new ideas and projects. Plus, you get to converse with lots of people who are into the same music as you are. From the various programs, I always chose the musicians and groups I knew or new constellations thereof
I don’t know how many times I mentioned “that German jazz pianist” that I listen to frequently and who is just awesome and, as the beer, wine and snaps would have it, I could never quite recall the name. I just have too much music and have gotten too old (and senile) to really have it all down pat at all times. One night, after (many!) years, a good friend, colleague, and a fabulous keyboard player in his own right, pricked up his ears when I said “something with T” and whipped out the program of the venue I was damn well sitting in and replied, “You don’t mean this guy, do you?” … pointing at the following week’s live gig.
After about 10 minutes of blushing and evasive actions to hide my dementia, I said, “Yes! That guy!” As it turns out, one of the regulars on my stereo had lived and played so close to me for an entire decade (and much longer), in the same venues I used to frequent, that to acknowledge my stupidity even today is totally embarrassing. Whenever I quickly skimmed and skipped through the various programs, I simply overlooked that he was part of my very own home turf. In fact, I could have seen him in various settings a myriad of times, had I not been so immediately selective when glancing quickly over what to go and see.
It’s that kind of thing where the stars simply hadn’t aligned properly for a longer period of time, where substances had clouded my mind for all too long and where I myself was simply too oblivious to connect A to B in a somewhat straight line.
I am and have always been a piano trio kind of guy (I do favor the piano, bass and drums type). Ever since I heard and saw jazz pianists such as Teddy Wilson, Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson, Count Basie, Claude Williamson, Carsten Dahl, Stefano Bollani, and so many others live, I have been hooked and my large (some people might say embarrassingly bloated) jazz collection is filled to the brim with piano (trio) jazz.
The other day, at Thilo Wagner’s local concert in my hometown, the announcer stated something along the lines that the local jazz club didn’t usually hire piano trios, simply because they didn’t have enough color or variation, excitement or live appeal, something that I would never even consider uttering publicly (because it is, to say the least, rather dense). The announcer did his best to put his own (embarrassing) statement into perspective by saying this was, after all, one of the best in Germany, but that didn’t help.
From the short list above you can deduct that I’ve heard them all, or most, maybe even only the most relevant, but I’ll go on record here saying that Thilo Wagner is one of the best swing pianists Europe has to offer, and – at least out in public view – there aren’t really that many old school musicians like him around anymore. There are very few left today (or recently gone) that I enjoyed as much as Thilo Wagner’s various endeavors. Paul Kuhn (Germany) comes to mind, a German pianist that didn’t have quite the technique that Thilo has but the panache and dead-on surety whenever he limited himself to the piano trio (and didn’t sing), plus many more modern jazz pianists such as Carsten Dahl from Denmark, who is a fabulous – but eclectic – player in the vein of Bill Evans with an unerring sense for reduction to minimal lyrical lines, Tord Gustavsen in that same vein, Stefano Bollani, whose take is often even more modern but nonetheless lyrical, plus a whole bunch more.
Thilo Wagner comes from the Teddy Wilson, Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner and, for example, Count Basie “deep end”. He is both an explosive and a lyrical swing player who has taken these influences in by osmosis and integrated them into a whole that is, well, Thilo Wagner. Yes, he has those Peterson flourishes, the blinding runs and glissandi that he can whip out at no extra cost, he even duplicates, when appropriate, some of Peterson’s trademarks to a “T” and he might end, as do many others, with the famous final Basie flourishes, but it’s Thilo you are hearing.
Twelve years of classical training. A first jazz trio he started at the age of eighteeen. A jack-of-all-trades when you look at who he has accompanied or brought into his very own fold: Jim Hall, Clark Terry, Charly Antolini, Emil Mangelsdorff, Peanuts Hucko, Scott Hamilton, Benny Waters, Ack Van Rooyen, Buddy DeFranco, Charlie Mariano, Ken Peplowski, Sebastian Studnitzky, Billy Mitchell, Butch Miles, Slide Hampton, Art Farmer, Martin Drew, Danny Moss, and many others.
A former or current member of the Emil Mangelsdorff Quartett, the Allotria Jazzband, the New Frankfurt Jazz Connection, Centerpiece, the excellent Bassface Swing Trio, the Barbara Bürkle & Thilo Wagner Duo “A Fine Romance”, the Frankfurt Jazz Bigband and his very own Thilo Wagner Trio, plus more.
On top of that, one shouldn’t forget Thilo Wagner’s German “team” which regularly pops up on his recordings, especially Lindy Huppertsberg whose “Lady Bass” moniker was (rightfully) given to her by her teacher, Ray Brown, Jean-Phillipe Wadle (bass) whose sense of rhythm is unerring, Flo Herman whose drum playing is extremely tasty, Gregor Beck (drums) whom you might have heard accompany Barbara Dennerlein, … and many, many others.
This is definitely not “local color” only. We are talking respected, reliable, renowned, and able.
If you are a fan of the swing piano trio, Thilo Wagner is your best bet at getting your money’s worth. As mentioned above, I have seen Teddy Wilson, Oscar Peterson, Count Basie and many, many others live, and, no matter how small the venue, I get that same tingling feeling whenever I see Thilo Wagner play. Sometimes I even get irritated about the fact that the rest of the audience seemingly does not realize the astonishing talent sitting in front of them, Wagner playing his ass off while they appear oblivious and are sipping their beers and cheap wine, babbling away about their day’s activities; still, for example, listening to Oscar Peterson’s London House sessions, with plate clatter, glass clinging, phones ringing and constant babbling in the background, things really used to be exactly the same way back when. No different.
Much like every other jazz pianist I favor, Thilo Wagner displays superb mastery of the standards and songbooks that so many of the pianists have delved into before him. From the tactile and sublime to the explosive and in-your-face the entire range is always there, making a live concert an extremely thrilling ride.
He’s also got that accurate and invigorating percussive touch that I enjoy so much, a left hand as deft as Peterson’s.
The wonderful moments that hardly anyone ever seems to notice happen (for me) when Thilo drops his left hand to his left knee and starts soloing and developing with his right hand only, usually with a somewhat serene smile on his face. Fascinating to watch. It is not only at these moments that he disappears in and into the music that he is playing.
Being a local musician of considerable repute, Thilo Wagner frequents lots of the smaller venues in our area and because they often do not have a piano standing around, he takes his own electric/digital one along. I never asked what it was (and was too lazy to check) and it does sound very good, but you simply have to hear him play a grand, which I have (for example at the Karlsruhe Jazzclub a while back). It’s just so much better.
In addition, Thilo Wagner – to me – is a live pianist (like, really, all the other ones I mentioned above). You have to be there, a few feet away to experience the sheer musicality emanating from wherever he happens to be placed. You have to feel what he does with your stomach (when explosive) and your heart (when lyrical and sublime).
Although, as stated previously, I enjoy Thilo most in a live setting, he’s got a load of excellent recordings out there for you to enjoy. Let me – quickly – round up the (best) ones I have.
Chronologically, I have been all over the map when it gets to Thilo Wagner’s recordings.
01) The Bassface Swing Trio. Plays Gershwin. Stockfish Records, 2007 (Direct Cut SACD Hybrid/CD Edition).
I started rather late with my first and favorite complete recording, a direct-to-disc one by his “Bassface Swing Trio” entitled “The Bassface Swing Trio Plays Gershwin” (Stockfish Records, 2007). Of course, this is an audiophile’s wet dream, but first and foremost, it’s just great music. If you want to check out Wagner’s playing, I would start with this one. You’ll have him, Jean-Philippe Wadle (bass) and Florian Hermann (drums) right in your living room. Taken from my 80+ meters of music, this is a mainstay.
- Oh, Lady Be Good
- Embraceable You
- Strike Up the Band
- Our Love Is Here to Stay
- The Man I Love
- I Got Rhythm
The “Bassface Swing Trio” has recorded three more CDs, “Straight Live” (2005), “A Tribute to Cole Porter” (2008) and “+ Ralf Hesse” (only available through their website).
02) The Bassface Swing Trio. Straight Live. Rodenstein Records, 2005 (live recording).
Again, of course, with Jean-Philippe Wadle (bass) and Florian Hermann (drums), this will give you a pretty accurate rendition of what these guys are like live: versatile … and swinging.
- I’ve Never Been in Love Before
- Everything I Love
- It Ain’t Necessarily So
- That’s All
- How Could You Do a Thing Like That to Me?
- On Green Dolphin Street
- Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You
- Lined with a groove
03) The Bassface Swing Trio. A Tribute to Cole Porter. Stockfish Records, 2008 (Direct Cut SACD Hybrid/CD Edition).
Thilo Wagner (piano), Jean-Philippe Wadle (bass) and Florian Hermann (drums) invited jazz singer Barbara Bürkle (from Stuttgart) to pay homage to some of Porter’s most loved compositions.
- Night And Day
- Dream Dancing
- Easy to Love
- Love for Sale
- It’s De-Lovely
- You’d Be So Nice to Come Home to
- Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye
- I Love Paris
04) The Bassface Swing Trio. +Ralf Hesse. Cockson Supersound/JazzFabrik Rüsselsheim/Kultur 1-2-3, 2012 (?).
This one I picked up at the last live gig in my hometown and it features, aside from the usual suspects, Ralf Hesse (trumpet), recorded on the backstage of the “Stadttheater Rüsselsheim” to catch a live atmosphere. Ralf Hesse really fits in well. Highly recommended! This CD is only available through the “Bassface Swing Trio” website.
- You Are My Sunshine
- Little Darling
- If I Where a Bell
- Stranges in the Night
- Billy Boy
- Split the Fairway
- Found and Lost
- 150 Yards to the Green
- Dejection Blues
05) Wagner/Mörike/Beck. Finally. Nagel Heyer Records, 2002.
This one I picked up at some point after it was released and it’s perhaps the second-most played Wagner CD in my household. It’s got a whopping 74:49 minutes of music featuring Thilo Wagner, Wolfgang Mörike (bass) and Gregor Beck (drums). It was recorded in Stuttgart (in 2001) and … swings!
- I’ll Be Seeing You
- If I Were a Bell
- My Romance
- O Sole Mio
- What Is This Thing Called Love?
- When You Wish Upon a Star
- I’m Old Fashioned
- All of You
- Everything Happens to Me
- Pennies from Heaven
06) Swinghouse Special. Easy Going. P&C Peschu Records, 2008.
This is the local group one often gets to see when at the smaller venues, small changes in personnel not withstanding. Thilo Wagner on piano, Lindy Huppertsberg on bass and vocals plus Hans Peter Schucker, Thilo Wagner’s long-time drummer.
- Billie’s Bounce
- Everything Happens to Me
- What Is This Thing Called Love
- I’m Old Fashioned
- On the Trail
- I Thought About You
- Yours Is My Heart Alone
07) Thilo Wagner Trio. Just in Time. Satin Doll, 1996.
As of this writing, I’m waiting for “Just in Time“, one of Wagner’s popular recordings that, somehow, has been quite elusive at reasonable prices these past years. Today, as a side-thought, I searched for it again and found an affordable copy. Should be here on Wednesday. Update: It arrived in pristine condition and is a fabulous recording.
It features Thilo Wagner (piano), Wolfgang Mörike (bass), Giga Brunner (drums) plus Klaus Graf (saxophone) and Sebastian Studnitzky (trumpet,flugelhorn).
- Just In Time
- Georgia On My Mind
- Count’s Blues
- So You Don’t
- Bags’ Groove
- Autumn Leaves
- Del Sasser
- I Can’t Get Started
- You Don’t Know What Love Is
There is more, and I invite you to search the Internet thin but, no matter what, if you ever get a chance, make sure to check out Thilo Wagner live, if you are so inclined, who will make your old-school swing heart melt for an hour or two.
[Photo: The photo at the top of this post is a press photo available on Thilo Wagner’s website, thilowagner-jazz.de, the black & white image is one I scanned from “The Bassface Swing Trio” live CD and the last one at the bottom I took from Barbara Bürkle‘s website, taken by Helmut Voith, copyright January 2014.]