Translucent Tones
Leo CD LR 339

German woodwind missionary Gebhard Ullmann is using this CD to proselytize and promote the versatility of a three-clarinet ensemble.

A transatlantic traveler, who has as many playing associates in Brooklyn as he has in Berlin, Ullmann, has joined with clarinetist Jürgen Kupke and bass clarinetist Theo Nabicht to record a series of 17 miniatures ranging from solos and group improvisations to original compositions and adaptations of existing tunes. In the main, the campaign for a setting that’s frequently shunned by so-called serious composers, is quite successful. Although there are times you wish some of the tinier miniatures weren’t so concise.

Ullmann, who elsewhere plays soprano and tenor saxophone, usually with American associates like bassist Joe Fonda or drummer Phil Haynes, in a European piano-bass trio or in his multi-reeds-and-accordion group Ta Lam Zehn, limits himself to bass clarinet here. Nabicht, whose background is composed music, also sticks to the low-pitched horn, while Kupke, who has been a member of Ta Lam Zehn, and even played New Orleans style, sticks to the traditional licorice stick.

With the majority of pieces either written or arranged by Ullmann, he’s obviously centre of the action. But wisely he doesn’t hog all the solo space. The other two musicians get a chance to show off their chops, though the CD’s raison d’être is tone blending not individual technique flaunting.

Still, with “Gebhard”, Ullmann does provide a tutorial on his instrument, demonstrating all the ways you can play bass clarinet from stratospheric, high-pitched tones down to rock bottom ones, not to mention creating sounds as loud as a battle or almost inaudibly. On the other hand, “Theo”, Nabicht’s feature, is a collection of snorts, key pops, echoed smears, throat rumbles, vocalized shouts and noises that appear to have migrated from a cuckoo clock. Obviously Eric Dolphy or David Murray didn’t exhaust the color repertoire of the bass clarinet. More to the point, Kupke’s feature, “Die Zwei Fraben Gehen” finds his trilling solo framed in group work, which would seem to be the basic point of the exercise, not to mention the CD.

Something like “Dreierlei”, begins with an R&B head — if clarinets were used in R&B — joins the horn tones in unison, then splits then apart amoebae-like. An aural vision of happy all-clarinet bandas marching every which way is the end result. The second run through of the title tune “(Gestalt in Three)”, written by Ullmann, relies even more on the three knitting together key pops, trills and reverberating tones into a velvety chalumeau tint. That way, if extended techniques are tried by one, the other two provide a reassuring cushion of unanimity until the soloist rejoins the others for a brisk, bouncy coda. In contrast “Animalische Stimmen” sounds as if all the tiny forest animals from a kids’ cartoon have escaped into the composition and begin bickering among themselves. One hopes the inspiration was supposed to be humorous because it certainly comes out that way.

Elsewhere, sliced and diced avant-garde reed techniques are trotted out, as are suggestions of Dixieland cadences, Klezmer yearning and even some Central European waltzes. In fact at times the music becomes so dance-like that it almost violates one of the tenants of serious experimentation and becomes foot tapping. Not that that oversight probably bothers any one of the three. For among the squeaks and slides and false fingering and flutter tonguing lie some tender and or cheery, joyous themes.

An object lesson in clarinet bliss doesn’t have to be done with long faces, as the three show in the booklet picture. Ullmann and associates have proved their hypothesis of reed versatility with this CD. Now let’s see then do the same thing with an extended composition.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Collective No. 5 2. Blue Trees and Related Objects 3. Translucent Tones (UP) 4. Animalische Stimmen 5. Translucent Tones (Gestalt in Three) 6. I Clowns 7. Theo 8. Collective No 7. (Presto) 9. Die Zwei Fraben Gehen 10. Dreierlei 11. Gebhard 12. Variations on a Theme by Erik Satie 13. Almost Twenty-Eight 14. Collective No. 6 and No. 8 (Mysterioso) 15. Anna 16. Der Ton A 17. Valzer Del Commiato

Personnel: Jürgen Kupke (clarinet); Gebhard Ullmann (bass clarinet); Theo Nabicht (bass clarinet)