Leo Records' first batch of 2012 releases (some of which I already wrote about here) includes two featuring saxophonist/bass clarinetist Gebhard Ullmann, both featuring his bass clarinet work with special projects: his long-running group The Clarinet Trio with fellow clarinetists Jurgen Kupke (clarinet) and Michael Thieke (clarinet, alto clarinet), and another trio, BASSX3, wherein Ullmann teams with bassists Chris Dahlgren and Clayton Thomas. I not only immediately looked forward to reviewing both of them, as Mr. Ullmann is one of my favorite artists, I also relished these releases as an opportunity to look back on his earlier work on Leo Records, both with The Clarinet Trio and in other contexts. As before, dates in parentheses after album titles are recording dates, with release on Leo sub-labels also noted there.
The variety of colors and styles this group commands despite its heterogeneous instrumentation was already apparent on its first album, back before Thieke had replaced Theo Nabicht (bass clarinet). The opening track, "Mouthpieces," is pure avant-garde with its extended techniques and free improvisation, but "Heaven No. 2.7" sounds classical with its alternation of counterpoint and chords, clearly composed in advance. The latter is one of nine pieces where Ullman has the sole writer credit; there are five tracks credited to all three members, four of them with "Collective" in the title; there's a two-bass-clarinet track credited to Ullmann and Nabicht; Nabicht and Kupke each get one sole credit; also heard on this 19-track album (many tracks are under two minutes in length, and only two break the four-minute mark) are the cleverly dissected Vincent Youmans standard "Tea for Two" and Nino Rota's "Parlami di me." "Gospel" may not sound like actual gospel, but its jazzy swing is proudly retro, and "Blaues Lied" really does sound like a Blues Song. "Brywzc," the Ullmann/Nabicht creation, has a hushed intimacy, while the immediately following work, "Blues/Collective Three," recalls the glory days of the World Saxophone Quartet with the gleeful coordinated power of its opening (and it's not the only track to bring that illustrious predecessor to mind -- no surprise, especially since half the members of the WSQ doubled on clarinets). Even on the second-longest, most freewheeling track, "Scratch/Collective Two," there's a broad range of not only timbres but also styles of playing -- it's not all energy. Most of all, though, this album is about the distinctively beautiful timbres of the clarinets, smoldering darkly and glinting sharp light in a rapturous chiaroscuro of sound.
This seems very much a sequel to the group's debut: much stylistic variety; still retaining Nabicht; again with five tracks credited to all three members, most continuing the "Collective" series and another a wild deconstruction of an Erik Satie piece; two more Rota covers; many short tracks, though some are of greater length this time out -- five are over four minutes, and one even tops six minutes. And again Ullmann (with seven of the singular credits, plus credit for both the Rota arrangements) dominates compositionally; a couple of the tracks rework pieces from non-trio albums. Kupke composed no tracks this time; Nabitch composed two, one of them a gorgeous ballad titled "Anna." One of the most striking tracks comes from an outsider, Hermann Keller: his "Animalische Stimmen" (Animal-like Voices), for mouthpieces only, was composed for this trio. In another departure, specific players are featured on six tracks, two for each, and this album sounds somewhat more European overall, with less overt blues and other American retro influence. In other words, while it's still clearly the same talented and multi-faceted group, it has evolved a bit, shifted its focus somewhat, and started to seem more like an ongoing project than a one-off.
On the third album, the shifts become more drastic, the overall feeling more abstract, just as the album title refers not to ballads per se (although there are some works here that don't strain the definition too far) so much as to, it seems, quiet moods. Thieke replaces Nabicht, adding alto clarinet to the group's arsenal; the "Collective" series continues but is the only material not composed by Ullmann, and the entire album is supposed to be "one long suite in different sections," though only Ullmann's announcement of that in the notes makes it clear. It's Debussy who gets a theme ("Syrinx") deconstructed in delicately acerbic fashion. A number of tracks are in unusual meters. "Almost Twenty-Eight," which had been rearranged for the trio's previous CD, reappears in yet another (and quite different) arrangement of such powerful momentum that even when its funky riff is (frequently) halted for sometimes highly angular, occasionally squealing, and even rhapsodic solos, its pulse acts as an unheard yet subtly felt counterpoise biding time until its reentrance. "29 Shoes" finds Ullmann unleashing some highly virtuosic improvisations, proving the bass clarinet is no less agile than its higher cousins (or, for that matter, saxophones). This album is less immediately ingratiating than its predecessors, but more intricately constructed and finely focused.
Here it is, last month's trio release, and the group's evolution continues. There are now only two episodes in the "Collective" series, and they're combined into one track, though the division seems obvious, the first serene, the second presumably starting from a strident outburst in the middle. Aside from a brief take on Ornette Coleman's "Homogenous Emotions," everything else is an Ullmann composition, and more of the tracks are over four minutes than under. Quirky meters abound, and the European flavor is even stronger; the opening track, "May 5," tastes pungently of klezmer (though, paradoxically yet understandably, that's a style Ullmann grew to know in New York, his second home). What used to be riffs have become more intricate, and must be tricky for the players to coordinate; they are now deployed like a choir more often. The riff/choir-interrupted-by-solos structure is quite frequently used; those solos are where most of the free jazz aspect of the group (outside of the one "Collective" track) is displayed, as for instance Ullmann's spontaneously serpentine lines on "Catwalk Münzstrasse." There are magical moments in the composed parts as well, such as the mysterioso chords that open "Geringe Abweichungen von der Norm," harmonically piquant and dynamically whispered. Of the group's four albums, this seems to me to be the best starting point for listeners not enamored of free jazz, its energy firmly guided within structures and harmonies, its style most distinctively Ullmann's.
Transatlantic is this band's second album; though it was recorded "live," the recording was done in a studio in Berlin, and the sonics -- so important in its low-end context -- are impressively vivid. There's been a personnel shift in one of the bass chairs, with Clayton Thomas replacing Peter Herbert, and in Ullmann's instrumental arsenal, which now sports bass flute (shown to maximum effect on the lovely "The Epic"). Both bassists are also credited with "objects," usually an indication that things will be freewheeling, which holds true here. The disc opens with the gorgeously droney "Transatlantic (Part One)," like a ritualistic invocation of the bass gods. Of course, the following track, "The Thing," is quite different, with considerably more movement. The three "Transatlantic" tracks are similar, but otherwise the players find quite a lot of different ways to combine their bass instruments.
Ullmann does much more than these projects. Here are his three other Leo albums:
This is one of Ullmann's bigger projects, in this incarnation (a concert from when Vancouver-based label Songlines released the Ta Lam album, compiled from the project's 1991 and '94 albums on 99 Records) a group of ten ("zehn" in German): nine winds and an accordionist, Hans Hassler. Aside from two arrangements of familiar Kurt Weill tunes ("Speak Low" and "Mack the Knife"), it's all Ullmann compositions, and his deployment of Hinrich Beermann (baritone sax), Daniel Erdmann (soprano and tenor saxes), Thomas Klemm (tenor sax, wooden flute), Kupke (clarinet), Joachim Litty (alto and bass clarinets, alto sax), Nabicht (bass clarinet, soprano sax), Heiner Reinhardt (bass clarinet), Volker Schlott (alto and soprano saxes, wooden flute), and himself (bass clarinet, soprano sax, wooden flute), plus Hassler, is boldly colorful, harmonically rich, rhythmically invigorating, and stylistically nearly uncategorizable in the way it draws on so many cultures' sounds without merely quoting them.
Another Ullmann/Dahlgren collaboration, this time with drummer Jay Rosen for what's almost a standard trio configuration, though Ullmann's on bass clarinet and bass flute, and Dahlgren doubles (occasionally) on electronics. Aside from Dahlgren's "Lolligager" [sic?], everything's credited to all three members, and this sure sounds like free improv most of the time; there's plenty of room for everyone to express themselves without stepping on each other. A couple of especially angular tracks, "Calling Mr. Waits" Nos. 1 and 2, I take to be loving elaborations on/extrapolations from the quirkier elements of Tom Waits's Island years. My favorite track, though, is the magically atmospheric "U.S.O. Ballad," in which Ullmann's bass flute rises poetically out of the opening's misty cloud of bass. While this is not as immediately gripping and distinctive an album as some of the others discussed here, it is thoroughly satisfying.
This is a cooperative quartet consisting of Ullmann (bass clarinet, tenor and soprano saxes), pianist Michael Jefry Stevens, bassist Joe Fonda, and (this time) drummer Han Bennink. They are a great free-improv band, but only one track here is completely spontaneous; mostly they work off of member compositions: two by Fonda, two by Ullmann that were also used in the Clarinet Trio, and the superb "Quiet" by Stevens. But within those pieces, anything can happen, and this is one of those bands -- especially here in a concert setting -- where half the fun is paying close enough attention to hear the players reacting to each other (mercifully, Bennink is on his best behavior). To my tastes, this is the most stimulating of Ullmann's Leo albums. - Steve Holtje
iTunes does not yet have Leo's January releases, so I couldn't link to them yet; when they're available, I'll put those links in. But all of the January releases, including the ones I haven't reviewed yet, can be found right now on Leo's new release page.
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer whose song cycle setting tanka by Fumiko Nakajo is finally complete at twelve songs. It is the most depressing set of songs since Mahler's Kindertotenlieder.