Salamander Big Band Concert with Thorsten Wollmann: The Report




What a pleasant surprise to see Salamander Big Band performed early this year. Usually they made two regular concerts: the mid-year in June and then the anniversary in September. But this year they started it big by having another concert in March which hopefully become regular too. Why not, since the Goethe Institut Jakarta backed them up fully, even invited a famous German composer who currently resides in Bangkok, Thorsten Wollmann. The founder and leader of this Bandung-based Big Band, Devy Ferdianto told us that he has actually planned to make at least four regular concerts per year, the other one is right at the end of the year. There’s a big chance for them to fulfill it too, but for now, let’s see how this early-year concert go.

Salamander Big Band was established in 2006 but actually it was started as brass band way earlier in 1991. What Devy had in mind was he wanted to offer something different than the music we listen everyday, plus he wished to give the real sound produced by real instruments. With this vision he shaped the traditional formation of the real big band, like Count Basie’s formation for example. The current music trend are not going his way, yet the Salamander Big Band got tremendous progress along the way with many successful stories. It’s not difficult to find youngsters among their audience, that shows that Salamander’s music is actually acceptable by wide range of ages.


While most of the traditional big band rooted themselves to the glorious golden era, Salamander Big Band likes to expand their musical territory. They can play good traditional swing, but often they fancy many other areas too such as fusion, funk and even ethnics. Or, speaking of musical timeline, they can play the style of big band the way you love it in the 60’s and 70’s. Another interesting case is how they picture European style of Big Band, not just playing it but also by inviting the European artists to join the party. Like this event for example, through Goethe Institut they featured the highly experienced artist who has done remarkable work in the European Big Band scene and beyond, Thorsten Wollmann. This time they were challenged to show their maximum abilities by playing much difficult repertoires with only 6 days to practice.

Let’s see a brief biography of Thorsten Wollmann. He was born in Biberach-Laupheim, Baden-Württemberg, Germany. He received his Master Degree (Magna Cum Laude)from the Musikhochschule Köln , majoring composition and jazz trumpet, minoring in piano. He has a shining portfolio since he’s been working as composer/arranger/conductor of many big bands in Germany, also active as a soloist. Aside of composing for big bands, he also compose many movie scores. Speaking of his music piece, he has written wide variation of genres from jazz to tango, children’s songs to chamber music and classical symphonic music. Throughout his career he’s involved in so many big bands in Europe, USA and Asia, either as a members or composing for them.  He’s also working as a lecturer for the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) in the Music Department of Payap University in Chiang Mai. In his young age, he was once a part of the national youth big band led by the legendary Peter Herbolzheimer. Wollmann is indeed an exceptional multi-talented man who  braves enough to take steps that the other might never thought before.

Devy gave his position to Wollmann led the Salamander Big Band by himself. Standing in front as the conductor, he directed the ensemble to play mostly his own compositions. Some of the songs weren’t his, but still it was him who did the rearrangement. “Some of the songs are very hard to play, let’s see how good the big band can play it tonight.” said Wollmann before the show.

Before the concert started, in his welcome speech Devy told the audience that this would be the last performance of Salamander Big Band in Bumi Sangkuriang. They have been playing and practising here for 6 years, so it’s hard to picture this hall without them.  Maybe this will open up new opportunities and possibilities for a better future, we certainly hope so.  As we spotted Dieter Mack who have worked many times with the big band among the audience, the program director of Goethe Institut Katrin Sohns greeted everyone, welcoming and thanking those who came. Then Devy proudly told everyone that tonight they were ready to play the biggest number of songs ever in their concert.


The Salamander Big Band then took position. What’s different from the first view is that now they put the formation in quite different way. The brass sections positioned on the right side of the dirigent as usual but the rhythm section now placed in the center front. This new setting made Salamander big Band looked different than usual. They started with Wollmann’s own song, “The Groove”, followed by delightful bossa nova tunes re-arranged by him, “The Dolphin.” Saxophonist Matt Ashworth got his solo part then the brass section roared nicely just like watching dolpins play in the ocean joyfully.

The next four songs were made by Wollmann as a part of his movement to make something different than the usual big band pieces. If usually the big band plays quite loud, Wollmann made more subtle songs like the West Coast Cool Jazz style. “In a Small Town” became the first song with tasty bebop bites where trumpeter Brury Effendi got a solo part, followed by the sweet “Lullaby”, the complex arrangement that should be difficult to play “Lost in Thought” and the swingy “Walking Out”.


Loud applause for them, but then a twist came to surprise everyone. The ensemble went out the stage, leaving only 3 people on stage: Wollman himself who immidiately moved to the piano, contrabassist Roy Bimantoro and drummer Augustinus. How often do you see a big band created a smaller cell as trio like this? Rare chance, but tonight Wollmann established something new in a big band concert. Shaping a trio, they played two jazz standards, “Time After Time” and Dave Brubeck’s gold, “Take Five.” They blended nicely and served wonderful play.

So, what next? They expanded the cell into five piece band. Shaping a quintet formation with trumpeter Brury Effendi and saxophonist Matt Ashworth, Wollmann presented two more compositions from him: “Bouncing” and “View from Above.” Again this formation grabbed wonderful attention from the crowds.

After 10 minutes break, the Salamander Big Band and Thorsten Wollmann came again with another surprise. The classic Indonesian song, “Lilin-Lilin Kecil” was brought nicely with Wollmann’s arrangement. Huge applause were given to them again.


The pianist Imelda Rosalin then got more role by singing while playing the piano. The sweet, delicate swingin’ “Good Life” got a very beautiful spirit through her voice. The Diane Schuur of Indonesia, Nenden Syintawati took over the vocals and sang “The End of Love Affair” to create a romantic atmosphere inside the hall.  The only male vocalist of Salamander, Gail Satiawaki now got his part by singing “A Wink and Smile” .  Still under Wollmann’s ellegant touch, Gail brought the jolly swing back in.

Wollmann continued with serving his own compositions again, firstly made for a proffesional German radio Big Band. The song called “Island Groove”, filled with the brass party and syncopative rhythm. The young percussionist Adya Dhivara brought the exotic islandic beat with his instruments. Having packed this track in style, they played another challenging song “New York Shuffle”, written by Wollmann when he was in New York. More brass players got their solo runs as the scene of big, grand, glamorous New York pictured perfectly by them.  We could taste some classic early Blue Note era too in this song.  Another brilliant piece which gained loud cheers and applause from the crowds.


“If those songs were challenging, this one exceed them.” said Wollmann before they played “Mongkok Funk.” Mongkok is a suburb in Hong Kong which is always crowded. So the composition was made as if we are watching the busy activities around the area. Funky, naughty and full of action were the feeling we got from this one. Another 5 star piece!  Wollman was right, it was difficult yet Salamander did hell of a job in this one.  They bagged the loudest respect right after.

The last two songs were taken from the anniversary of a company which was made big in Stuttgart, where Wollmann participated in. The first song “Afrika” started by Adya’s amazing percussion showdown. The taste of African wild-life in peaceful portrait shone from them. Rika Andriyani did great on piano. “Finale” became the finale for this concert . Grand salsa in swingin’ big band put the show in pleasuring climax. Some audience gave them standing applause.

Having the early big band treat like this was like a pleasant surprise for us. Salamander Big Band has already established itself as a great quality ensemble who can capture the atmosphere of various eras, yet it still grows in skill, variety and the fun of playing. They can pin swing jazz standard, Indonesian classic songs or covering the works of famous names, but they can also play more challenging compositions that most of the time got complexities. What’s quite impossible is the fact that Wollmann only had 6 days to train them. But the result was really fantastic. “It wasn’t full 6 days, because they all had their own activities too.. but well, they did it!” Wollmann said to us.  He also gave compliment to the Salamander Big Band. For a man who has worked with so many professional big bands over the years, this kind of compliment feels really special. “They are on their way.” he said. As  we watched tonight, Salamander Big Band answered all the challenge with such remarkable works.

Tonight we enjoyed the big band in a whole new approach. If usually the rhythm section mostly stood just at the back, this time they have much more important roles in Wollmann’s way. A big band that can form smaller cell as trio and quintet, who would have thought about that? And the composition he wrote or his rearrangements are all brilliant. Not only he explores much further than just the traditional swing, his compositions are mostly challenging to play yet melodic. Bravo Thorsten Wollman and Salamander Big Band, and thanks to Goethe Insitut for keep supporting the big band and Indonesia’s jazz development.  Danke Schön!

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Reporter: Riandy Kurniawan
Photographer: Mia Damayanti