August 27, 2001
between the lines btl017/EFA 10187-2
German multi-reedman Gebhard Ullmann continues to straddle the thin line between — to be simplistic — the European and American sides of his musical personality. When based in New York, as he is part of year, and working with American sidefolk, his conception is harder and more rhythmic.
In Berlin, as on this session, he moves more towards harmonies and chamber-improv, especially in an open session like this one. Lacking any sort of dedicated percussion instrument, the selections are light and deliberate without, however, being downy or lugubrious. Much of the vigor, though, can be ascribed to bassist Carlos Bica, who rightfully gets feature billing. A native of Portugal who now lives in Berlin, he supplies the forceful base upon which Ullmann's tenor and soprano saxophones and bass clarinet plus Jens Thomas' understated piano work.
He's versatile as well. On the first, "grave" version of the title track, for instance, he can sound like an entire arco string section before descending into some bass clef meandering. Conversely, his bowed solo on the later "largo" version of the tune is resonant enough to seemingly suck up all the musical air available, quickly overpowering the initial echoing saxophone modulations.
Would that Thomas had as much presence. Often his contributions appear to be little more than decorative, a mixture of 19th century romanticism and baroque minuettos that are nearly buried by the strong personalities of the other two.
This is highlighted most clearly on Bica's "Simple Melody". Euphoniously moving a few countries north of his birthplace, the bassist manages to become a bass-playing Hungarian gypsy before settling into a regular pattern of sounding two notes simultaneously — one in the treble clef and one in the bass. With an exaggerated vibrato, Ullmann's tenor saxophone soon performs the same feat before introducing reed cries and steady overblowing. Despite all this the pianist seems to be doing no more than fluffily tinkling in the background.
"Planicies", another tune by the bassist, brings this separation into even bolder relief. Overstated politeness seems to keep each of the musicians from interfering in the others' solos. Singularly, Ullmann shows off the multiphonics available from the middle register of his bass clarinet, Bica appears to be muted in his solo contributions, while Thomas is not only the antithesis of swing, but tentative as well. Like the tramps in the play Waiting for Godot, the three appear to be searching for some sort of unobtainable connection.
Most assertive on the reedman's "Gospel", Thomas is finally aggressively two handed, creating long, repetitive backing lines with his left hand after molding high chiming decorations with his right. Unlike the more mundane recreations of soul traffickers like Bobby Timmons, Ullmann's gospel is decidedly non-African American, with Bica's cello-like tone on the bass and his own full throated tenor cry working to expose its reverent underpinnings, not its familiar sound.
If ESSENCIA does have one massive misstep it comes on "Chinesisches Gedicht No. 3" where vocal gibberish —meant to sound like spoken Chinese? — vies with burlesque freak-out timbres to little effect.
Those who have followed Ullmann's career in the past, plus folks who appreciate musicians who try to offer something new and different with each session would be wise to investigate this CD. If one should exist, however, this still isn't the reedman's definitive statement. But he's coming closer with each project. Maybe next time, though, he and Bica should be matched up with an authoritative percussionist to see what sparks fly.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: 1. Sombras E Nevoeiro/A Luz Da Sombra 3. Essencia (grave) 4. Haiku 5. O Profeta II 6. Pinóquio 7. Bella und Herr T. 8. Walking Poem No. 2 9. Planicies 10. Essencia (largo) 11. Chinesisches Gedicht No. 3 12. Simple Melody
Personnel: Gebhard Ullmann (soprano and tenor saxophones, bass clarinet); Jens Thomas (piano); Carlos Bica (bass)