Julian Waterfall Pollack Trio
“…to me, feeling is the most important part of music. This is why music exists…”
…says someone who should know. Having just turned 25, pianist and composer Julian Waterfall Pollack is regarded as one of the great up-and-coming talents on the American jazz scene. Marian McPartland, the legendary pianist, saw it coming in 2006 after she had invited Pollack to appear on her celebrated radio programme, NPR’s Piano Jazz. She was bowled over by his masterly, emotive playing. “A wonderful new player on the jazz scene,” raved the grand old lady of the piano – even then.
Now, seven years on, Julian Pollack, together with the bass player Noah Garabedian and the drummer Evan Hughes, presents his second album. On Waves Of Albion, the New York based musician takes his listeners on a journey to the area in which he grew up: Albion, California – a small town on the Pacific coast, many hours away from the bustle of large cities such as San Francisco, to the largest ocean in the world – deep and enigmatic – with all its rough edges, often threatening, even dangerous, but always full of character and natural beauty. Pollack explores these contrasts in the title piece Waves Of Albion – an open-ended composition, without a beat or bars, that does not fit any given formula. When Pollack plays sustained notes and chords on the piano’s bass register – underpinned by discreet counter bass passages and the crescendo of cymbals – listeners can imagine the Pacific waves towering in front of them, smashing onto the cliffs, then disappearing in a rush of oceanic sound.
Julian Pollack, in this album, repeatedly treats the listener to such melodious and harmonic musical experiences. Stylistically his compositions cannot easily be classified. The basic ingredient is jazz, but he also integrates elements from classical music, as well as pop and traditional folk music. “I really love complex harmony, but I also like the simplicity of harmony in pop music, where you take beautiful sounds and play them over and over again,” explains Pollack. The classic, mostly very modest, tunes are important sources for him. He finds basic ideas in such pieces, then – mostly through improvisation – gives them a new twist. This he does with Amazing Grace and Shenandoah – two traditional songs, which Pollack and his colleagues interpret in their own unique way.
This working style is especially clear in What Sarah Said. At first the musicians stay close to the original melody and chord progression of the version by the indie rock band Death Cab for Cutie. Then the trio vary the rhythm and harmony of the riffs and eventually improvise – in 11/16 – which offers a completely new musical insight into the piece. The three young musicians, through their harmonic, richly varied playing, take the their audience by storm – emotionally and intellectually.
Much of the music is melancholic. The titles Sad Song and I Don’t Believe in Love Anymore do not sound as if played by hedonists. “In music, the melancholic vibe is a very powerful one, but I wouldn’t say that I’m a particularly melancholic person,” explains Pollack. In the USA, Pollack has already made a name for himself as pianist, composer and arranger. Critics are particularly impressed by the maturity and virtuosity of the 25 year old. “Pollack often plays with seemingly impossible soul and maturity for someone so young” says David Weigand of The San Francisco Chronicle. Nate Chinen of The New York Times calls Pollack “a pianist with an earnest air…emerging, young and poised.”
Prodigy is a well-worn term, but it certainly applies to Julian Pollack. His mother a concert pianist, his father an orchestral conductor – were parents who took care of the early musical education of their offspring. They introduced him to jazz, classical music and the pop gems of the Beatles. At the tender age of five his mother gave him his first piano lessons and it did not take long before he could play technically complex classical compositions with uncanny ease. His role models were Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans and Duke Ellington – all three of them masters of the keyboard and great arrangers.
In 2006 – having just graduated from Berkeley High School – Pollack risked taking the big step: moving from the Bay Area to the jazz metropolis of the world – New York City. There he studied piano and composition at New York University and soon became involved in the local jazz scene. His mentors included the likes of Kenny Werner, Brad Mehldau, John Scofield and many others. By the time Pollack graduated from NYU with a Master’s Degree in piano and compisition, he had performed in numerous legendary Jazz clubs such as The Blue Note, Smalls, The Jazz Gallery, and The Village Vanguard.
How does Pollack make his piano playing sound so mature and give his compositions such emotional depth? “There is no formula that we use,” he says, “we just stay true to ourselves. It works out as long as we play what we want to hear.” Should Pollack and his fellow-musicians continue along their unflinching path – much will be heard from them.