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Monday, March 13, 2023

Catching up with Gebhard Ullmann (Part 1 of 2)

By Paul Acquaro 

Last year, German woodwind player and composer Gebhard Ullmann turned 65, but judging by his recent output, it seems safe to say that retirement is not on the agenda. In fact, between the latter half of 2022 and into early 2023, he has released an impressive batch of recordings that not only bristle with creative energy but also show off quite different sides of his musical personality. Today's review focuses on his latest acoustic leaning recordings, followed tomorrow with a dive into his recent electro-acoustic releases. Let us begin with the transfixing sounds of the venerable Clarinet Trio...

Clarinet Trio - Transformations and Further Passages (Leo Records, 2022)

In a sense, the albums here range from the most traditional to the most boundary pushing. However, Ullmann's work is multifaceted and even the most 'traditional' of it is far from, well, being that traditional at all. Strands of avant-garde, conventional jazz melodies and improvisation are intricately intertwined in all of this music. Some just lean more heavily to one than the other, in a sense.

The Clarinet Trio is as advertised, three clarinets. It's understandable that one may be a bit prejudiced and think, 'hmm that Bb clarinet has its charms but can also pierce the most hardened eardrums...,' however, let go of these notions, on Transformations and Further Passages, Ullmann, along with Michael Thieke and Jürgen Kupke show just how versatile and lovely not only the standard Bb clarinet (Kupke, Thieke) can be, but also how sumptuousness of the bass clarinet (Ullmann), and that the alto (Thieke) is not so bad either. 
The trio are celebrating their 25th anniversary this year. They have released five other recordings since 1999, and on this one, their sixth, they explore choice modern jazz compositions from the 1950's and 60's from a brilliant line-up of German musicians including Albert Mangelsdorff, Karl Berger, Rolf and Joachim Kühn, E.L. Petrowsky, Jutta Hipp, Joki Freund, and Manfred Schoof.

To start, they begin with a collective composition of their own, entitled 'Collective #13'. Sweeping melodic lines and connective legato tones helps set the tonal stage, highlighting the unique timbres of each instrument, from the gentle to the piercing, the lulling to the vibrant. Then, they launch into 'Cleopatra,' a swinging number by saxophonist Joki Freund. The mood is light, and the interplay is intricate. The melody bounces between the instruments and the combination of the instruments seems to produce more sound than one may expect from three unadorned acoustic woodwinds. The atmosphere can also turn on a dime, as it does in the middle of the tune, where extended techniques and harmonic overtones take over. 
Next up is Albert Mangelsdorf's 'Tension' and 'Varie' from the trombonist's 1963 album Tension. The track is indeed a study of tensions and tones, sounding more like a modern classical composition than the jazz-inflected originals. Towards the track's end, the originals rhythmic groove is meticulously emulated on the woodwinds. Jumping deeper into the recording, each player has a solo track, Thieke takes the first, followed by Ullmann and lastly, Kupke. These short interludes are fascinating, short interludes that add some additional variety to an already varied assortment. Not only are the arrangements satisfyingly eclectic -- compare the devilish arrangement of clarinetist Rolf Kuhn's 'Don't Run' to the satisfyingly blue-note rich 'Der Blues ist der Koenig' from clarinetist Ernst Petrwosky, for example -- but the individual musicianship is absolutely peerless.

Gebhard Ullmann / Steve Swell / Hilliard Greene / Barry Altschul -We're Playing In Here ? (NoBusiness, 2022)

This, and the next recording, feature the long-standing musical relationship between Ullmann and NYC based trombonist Steve Swell. The rest of the quartet on We're Playing in Here ? is rounded out by New Yorkers too, namely bassist Hilliard Greene and drummer Barry Altschul. This dynamic quartet has at least one other recording, Desert Song (CIMP, 2004).

We're Playing in Here ? came out last summer, although it was recorded back in 2007. While in a sense an archival recording, it sounds as if could have been made last week. The album begins with an drum solo from Altschul, an unorthodox and bold start. Soon Greene is laying down a solid groove oriented bass line and the 'front-line' joins with the tandem melody of Swell's 'Planet Hopping on a Thursday Afternoon.' The upbeat track then opens up with a looping, driving rhythm while Ullmann and Swell deliver at first  simultaneous melodies, and then split off individually. The solid, pulsating support gives Ullmann, and then Swell, a real chance to just let loose. 'La Mairposa,' another composition from Swell, follows an undulating path consisting of rapid scales that run headlong into long, expressive passages. Ullmann gives his bass clarinet a workout, effortlessly switching between extended tones and sudden squawks. 
The title track - another composition from the trombonist - answers its own question. Whether or not it is an expression of negative or positive wonder - the inspiration for the title is not revealed - the group explores the here with purposeful vigor. The album closes with Ullmann's quirky contribution 'Kleine Figuren #1.' Swell and Ullmann once again offer a tangle of melodies while Altschul and Greene lay down a solid, non-repetitive foundation - a fine free-jazz closer to an excellent recording.

The Chicago Plan - For New Zealand (NotTwo, 2022) *****

The Chicago Plan is, like the group above, based on the long-standing cooperation between Steve Swell and Ullmann, who first worked together in the 1990s in the group Basement Research. Here the pair are joined by cellist and electronics master Fred Lonberg-Holm and drummer Michael Zerang.

Released in November 2022, at the same time as the Clarinet Trio, this one finds Ullmann in a fiery mood, and for good reason: For New Zealand is dedicated to the 2019 Mosque shootings in Christchurch. The attack, perpetuated by a white supremacist, killed 50 and injured dozens more. The album's opener, Swell's 'Composite 13 - For New Zealand' bottles the rage and frustration from the horrific event into a stunning and dense 10 minutes of sound. Trombone, cello, sax, and drums congeal into a musical fist, drawing blood as its grip tightens until the very last forlorn tones. The follow up, 'Welcome to the Red Island,' begins with Ullmann playing solo bass clarinet. His sonorous expressions signal a different approach from the last track and when the others join, Lonberg-Holm provides sympathetic harmony, which then welcomes a touching passage from Swell. 'Sketch 6' begins with a exploratory attitude with each player offering a parallel melody, sometimes connecting, sometimes contrasting. After a short, composed passage, Zerang takes over with a percussion interlude and continues to be a dominant force as the track finally opens up for an eviscerating set of solos.

The other tracks continue to offer up their own contrasts and surprises. 'YoYo' begins with the two horns playing a simple, syncopated melody, while the cello offers a legato counter melody over the rumbles of the drum. The track then turns noisy and Lonberg-Holm shreds the sonic curtains (mostly acoustically too, there seems to be very little overt electronics at all). 'BA-8' builds in swelling freely improvised waves, the passages organized around short composed sections - or at least ones where the musician seamlessly connect - which ultimately leaves an impressionistic soundscape in its wake. The closer is 'Variations on a Master Plan (part 1)' a return to a theme that has appeared on other work from Ullmann, like his 2003 album of with the same title from his group Conference Call, as well as on several other albums. What one can say about 'Part 1' is that is thrives off the same energy that possesses the other tracks here, and wraps the masterful For New Zealand in a taught, defiant bow. 
Fantastic album.


Colin Green said...

Nice reviews, Paul.

In addition to ”Desert Songs and Other Landscapes” (CIMP, 2005), I’d recommend the other albums by the Ullman, Swell, Greene, Altschul quartet: “News? No News!” (Jazzwerkstatt, 2010) and “Live in Montreal” (CIMPoL, 2010).

Is something from 2007 really an archival recording, in any sense – have our attention spans got that short? And so far as I can tell not much has changed in recording quality since then.

Colin Green said...

Or maybe I’m just getting old and 2007 doesn’t seem that long ago.

Paul said...

My working definition of archival has more to do with how we choose our top 10's art the end of the year ... recorded more than 10 years ago it falls into the category. I guess it's not really about recording technology, rather simply about time.