German woodwind player and composer Gebhard Ullmann began his Basement Research project in the early 1990s. He released the group's self-titled album in 1993 on the Italian Soul Note label with a group featuring saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Phil Haynes. The music was a successful mix of more formal compositions drawing from a diverse mix of jazz approaches, injected with the opportunity for each player to take the music as far out as needed. A mere 25 years later, Basement Research consists of Ullmann, saxophonist Julian Argüelles, trombonist Steve Swell, drummer Gerald Cleaver, and most recent member bassist Pascal Niggenkemper. This line-up, somewhat stable since the late 2000s, still delivers a mix of somewhat formal compositions injected with outside-the-lines playing, ensuring that Impromptus and Other Short Works both maintains its excellent musical lineage and provides a delightful platform for these seasoned musicians.
So, consistency noted; however, more important is that there is no doubt, from the moment the music begins, that this is an enjoyable and exciting recording. Accessible, it requires no adjustment of the ears or time to live with it, but that doesn't mean it is without surprises and a long shelf-life. I've been coming back to this recording for the past several months, each time feeling like I've discovered something new. There is no need for an "ah-ha" moment here, it begins with it and never stops. In fact, one may say there are some real Ah Um moments, as the music has more than once elicits the feeling of Mingus' rich riffs.
The opener "Gospel" serves in at lease two ways, one is that it underscores Ullmann's strongly rooted compositional prowess and certainly lives up to its name, but it is also indicative of his working style - in this case a tendency to revisit and recast older songs. This particular one popped up on 2007's New Basement Research recording and even a few years earlier in this video. The version from 2019 (here), is less introspective, beginning with a more collective mardi-gras sound, and a prominent role for the wail of the trombone. The tune, when the band kicks in with the head, is slower, and more reflective of the sensitivity first heard in the introduction.
The next track, "Twelve Tones - Impromptu #5", begins much differently. Exploratory, the two woodwinds and the brass intertwine different melodies, until the bass and drums join. Niggenkemper delivers an insistent pulse and when the horns join again, they play unison lines - but not for long - as they split apart again, spiraling away from the solid center. "29 Shoes" appeared on Ullmann, Juergen Kupke, and Michael Thieke's The Clarinet Trio: Ballads and Related Objects from 2004 (listen). In 2019, it is as upbeat and playful as it was with the clarinet trio, but now benefits from the vast palette of colors and tones. The sax solo that emerges from the song head is taut and linear, with the other musicians joining in at times, mimicking rhythmic patterns and adding new flavors, almost threatening to become a little too much. "For Jim - Impromptu #6" shows yet another side of the group, this time starting with a spiritual swelling and builds to an uplifting end. The closing track "Almost 28" is the most Mingusy of the songs, with a stomping riff delivered in precariously leaning towards falling apart, and in it's short 4 minutes of life does in fact fall apart only to resurrect for a rousing end.
Each song on the album is short, nothing breaks the 6 minute mark, but each packs a punch and covers a huge range of stylistics, supported by superb musicianship. Another fine recording from Ullmann's Basement Research project and something that will easily find a spot in your collection.
Good to see this getting positive coverage. Ullman has sporadically stopped by here with his other groups: once with Conference Call in an unusual restaurant setting where I was one of the only people paying attention and Michael Jefry Stevens was shackled with a horrible electric piano, and more recently with The Chicago Plan. I first heard the current group on the 2007 New Basement Research on Soul Note and was impressed at how everything was so adventurous yet coherent. Good to hear that he's kept it together as a working group.
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