Uli Lenz began his love affair with the keyboard at the age of 4 and was giving his first classical recitals by the ripe old age of 10. Now 46, Lenz appears poised on the brink of international success as the most exciting proponent of the jazz piano. His solo concert at the Actors Studio Theater, Bangsar, on November 29 (2001), was part of a promotional tour for his latest release on Bob Karcy’s Arkadia label, Rainmaker’s Dance, which just might propel the young virtuoso to the lofty ranks of established masters such as Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, Chick Corea, Cecil Taylor, or the vastly underrated Denny Zeitlin.
Lenz has certainly paid his dues, after four persistent decades of crafting his very own jazz piano voice and improvisational style. Innovative German jazz pianists like Uli Lenz and Matthias Frey have added a crisp intellectual dimension to a musical genre unique to America, and long dominated by Americans. It’s about time jazz interpreters outside the USA received their share of global fame.
As a result of an invalidated prepaid phone card, my pre-arranged date for the evening fell through and I found myself at the concert with my computer techie friend (whose acquaintance with piano music extends no further than Richard Clayderman). At the intermission I asked if my friend was enjoying himself. “The piano is like a child’s toy in his hands,” my friend observed. “It’s quite exciting to watch!” If Uli Lenz can wean my friend off Richard Clayderman, more power to him.
Lenz is a highly disciplined magician walking the fine line between technical virtuosity and musical shamanism. Unfortunately, the rented Kawai baby grand was quite unprepared for his polytonal clusters and percussive attack: the high notes came out tinny while the lows were rather dull. But it was educational to see Lenz trying to befriend and cajole the unfamiliar Korean-made instrument into willing compliance with his priapic pianistic ego.
He exchanged small talk with the Kawai – whom he named Bina or Sabina (“It’s obviously a she,” Lenz quipped) – which revealed his acute awareness of the animistic Weltanschauung where matter and spirit form the warp and woof of reality. I was impressed by Lenz’s mastery of fluid lyricism as expressed through mushy ballads like My Foolish Heart and Body and Soul. But his sophisticated stride technique came through on the fiery Latin exercises combining syncopated cross-rhythms and staccato chordwork.
I found myself envying the long years of academic discipline Uli Lenz possessed but had obviously outgrown. At many points I was secretly pleased to note that Lenz’s love of extemporization – and his instinctive good taste in deconstructing musical conventions – were not too different from my own ambitious (and outrageously amateur) attempts. This was especially true whenever the young master spontaneously composed onstage a piece inspired by the moment (and Lenz treated us to several displays of his remarkable self-confidence). One of these experiments he decided to name Visit From Planet 7 – a title that struck a chord with me, if only because I’ve been fascinated by the fact that Earth was called the seventh planet in Mesopotamian records. It is indeed the seventh planet to any visitor arriving from beyond the Solar System!
There were loads of local musicians in the audience, as to be expected, and more than one commented afterwards that Uli Lenz came across as more a showman than a shaman: “So he has an incredible voice, but what does he have to say?” Perhaps that’s being ungenerous, but to a certain extent I agree. Uli Lenz may have mastered the secrets of the keyboard, but he has a little way more to journey before one can say he has mastered the secrets of music – which must surely extend beyond the dandified domains of contemplative jazz. But judging from his cool, confident performance and stage presence, the man is certainly capable of anything.
7 December 2001