Wise Men Can Be Worng
Nils Wogram Root 70
Text by Wolf Kampmann
How do they say it so nicely in the film classic The Big Lebowski? “Strong men also cry.” And just as strong men can cry, so can wise men err. However, Nils Wogram and its long-term group Root 70 are, however, one hundred percent on track, once again.
Jazz – and who wanted to doubt this – has been the most stable form of music in the last 120 years, and yet its personnel are constantly fluctuating. Few bands stay together longer than it takes them to make one record and go on one tour together. Firmly established groups, working for decades with the same band members, are more the exception than the rule. One of these bands is Root 70 with Nils Wogram on trombone, Hayden Chisholm on saxophone, Matt Penmanon bass and Jochen Rückert on drums. After 15 years of active duty, the band does not need to be introduced anymore: it is a standard, a benchmark in German jazz and beyond.
Sooner or later, a special question is inevitable in such a constellation: where do we come from? In their search for answers, Root 70 has arrived at standards. To all those prophecies of doom, about who needs five-millionth standards album, Wogram throws back a joyous “So what!” With a magic carpet of imagination, the four musicians glide through the age-old songs of Billy Strayhorn, Cole Porter, Henry Mancini or Jerome Kern as if they had thought of them only a half an hour earlier. And then? Cram these classics in the sophistication boiler and then in the arrangement centrifuge? No! The humor and the dance of the pieces are unique. The difference to conventional standards albums is the attitude with which they serve these classics. And the circle to The Big Lebowski now closes. The most complex situations are explained here laughably easy.
“The reality of many jazz musicians looks like this: they care for these standards in secret, but would never do so in public,” admits Wogram. “And if you have recently resorted to playing this material, then in as complex arrangements as possible.” Well observed. But more than that, Wogram sets a counterpoint by asking what these standards today still constitute – beyond all of the personal interpretations. The special feature is that they simply exist. Root 70 has often resorted to standards when they do sound checks or jam sessions. And this is what Wogram finally wanted to document. “Of course, it would have made sense to bend these standards so far that ‘our thing’ results, but that is what I did not want to do this time. For me it was rather about recording simple songs simply.”
He doesn’t want to add anything to these old pop songs; they do not get any better than they already are. Indeed, others have long since exhausted the level of abstraction in these pieces, so by omitting all the frills, Root 70 succeeds in finding itself. For who still really knows the originals? The versions of Miles, Monk, Bird and Trane have become fixed in our ears, but even these were already transformations. Wogram and Co. do not search for the next largest obstacle that they must overcome on the road to the standards. They play the songs as they get them under the fingers. Their motto is “Out with it.”
“The risk is that you cannot hold on to anything,” says Wogram. “After 15 years of playing together in this band, I find that one can sometimes dare to play such simple material. In your own compositions, you can always find a lot yourself, per se. For standards, however, it is much harder to find something of yourself, because you have these incredible role models. As you get older, you can deal with your own sound more confidently. You have nothing to reinvent and can create something original anyway.”
The joy with which Wogram, Chisholm, Penman and Rückert play these songs does without any post-modern cynicism. They do not abuse the songs in order to make fun of them. There were no discussions on how the pieces should be played. “We simply played them that way.” Thanks to this way they understand themselves, Root 70 can dispense with the obligatory Radiohead or Hendrix song, which would have made any kind of current reference – whatever that may mean – sound rather forced on the album.
Root 70 is one of the few consistent “if you’re gonna do it, do it right” bands. What they do, they do it right. Their music does not require an instruction leaflet. “You have to make decisions, what material should be selected, how it should sound and be played. It was important to me that the pieces fit well together. Every concession to contemporary pop would have simply been wrong.” Wogram and his band have the courage to celebrate their standards with the attitude they have lived and to return jazz back to popular culture in this way. Root 70 is synonymous with “you can discover something new at any age.” The songs speak for themselves. And if they do not? We’ll answer that with another classic. So what! Even wise men can be wrong.