I hope that with these reviews I wasn't too unfair to Ullmann. His music can be difficult and uninspired, and although I feel that it misses the spot most of the time, he deserves praise for trying things that aren't likely to gain widespread public acceptance.
What am I talking about? Well, if you were to compare his Basement Research with Ellery Eskelin's Forms - the same group minus Ullmann - you'd quickly see what I mean. I make this same point in the first paragraph of the review, and essentially Ullmann didn't rise to the occasion. More than capable of treading water, some day I hope that he proves me wrong and records a classic....
The Big Band Project
SOUL NOTE (121471-2)
Think Tank; Ta Lam; Fourteen Days/Cafe Toronto; D Nee No; Kreuzberg Park East; High Lam Earth; Blaues Lied.
Gebhard Ullmann (ss, ts, bcl); NDR Big Band conducted by Dieter Glawischnig; guests including Tom Rainey (d); Julian Arguelles (bs).
Recorded February 2001.
DRIMALA (DR 04-347-07)
Nummer Sieben; Gross Und Klein; Small Birds/DreiHolz; bassX3; Blue Mint; Red; Yeah Mbira; Slowliness In Green & White.
Gebhard Ullmann (bfl, bcl); Chris Dahlgren (b, toys, elec); Peter Herbert (b).
Recorded June 2001.
German reedsman Ullmann has always struck me as a mildly interesting player, never likely to shirk any challenge, yet without sufficient magnetism to distinguish him as an artist of the first rank. His 1993 Soul Note outing ‘Basement Research’ with Ellery Eskelin, Drew Gress and Phil Haynes was a classic example of what I mean. Sparks should have flown, yet Ullmann more often than not seemed to simply get in the way. Some years on and there are signs of a more forceful personality emerging, though I fear that neither of these releases will mark his breakthrough.
‘The Big Band Project’ does exactly what it says on the label and is the most conventional of the two, and the music of the trio is the most challenging and rewarding view of Ullmann’s work. Transatlantic, like many of his ensembles, ‘BassX3’ features essentially an open form improvising trio operating very much at the lower end of the tonal spectrum. Ullmann is joined by not just one but two double bassists, Dahlgren and Herbert, familiar figures to followers of the New York avant-garde. Drone-based material such as ‘Nummer Sieben’ and ‘bassX3’, where the arco techniques are simply jaw-dropping, open up seemingly cavernous chamber spaces. Ullmann plays bass flute on both selections, but the results become patchier when he turns to bass clarinet. The off-kilter funk of ‘Blue Mint’ is superb, yet elsewhere he seems to simply peck at the reed. Dahlgren’s subtle use of electronics is sparing and and enhances the subterranean ambience. At times sounding like a hybrid of chamber-jazz and Pauline Oliveros’ ‘Deep Listening’ music, this is worth your money if your interests stretch to the outer reaches of the music.
For ‘The Big Band Project’, recorded live, the sound world shifts dramatically from lower to upper-case. Augmenting the core of the NDR Big Band are talents such as Reiner Winterschladen, Christof Lauer, Julian Arguelles and the thunderous Tom Rainey. Somewhat surprisingly neither Lauer nor Winterschladen get any solo space, though in the final analysis this is really more of an arranger’s project. What could have been a neat career retrospective of key compositions instead becomes a collection of diffuse arranging styles that fail to gel into a cohesive whole. Without the Mingus-like romp through ‘Blaues Lied’ (arranged by Dahlgren) this would have been a very turgid affair indeed. Too much space is given to Stephan Dietz’s extremely dated overdriven feedback storms, an unwelcome reminder of the days when Volker Kriegel’s United Jazz & Rock Ensemble roamed the earth.
Klaus König has deployed similar sounds and textures to far better effect, and his deft arrangements could certainly have lifted this disc several notches. Too many of the charts simply collapse under their own weight, suffocating the soloists and failing to get off the ground. A piece such as ‘Ta Lam’, superficially impressive in its complexity, trips over itself in a self-conscious rush to touch as many stylistic bases as possible. Edward Vesala could get away with such tricky manoeuvres because he had such a uniquely seductive palette, a strong sense of form and a seemingly unerring ability to make his music flow organically. Although Ullmann sounds altogether clumsier and rough around the edges, interesting episodes can nevertheless be heard along the way. ‘The Big Band Project’ is far from perfect, but it would nevertheless make a good starting point for those keen to know more about Ullmann’s work. Still relatively young and certainly prolific, I suspect we’ll get the definitive statement from him sooner or later.
(Jazz Review, May 2005)