Ulrich Gumpert Workshop Band

Smell a Rat
Jazzwerkstatt JW004

Sweeter smelling - er, listening - than the title would indicate, Smell a Rat is a newly unearthed East German FreeBop classic from 1995, featuring a septet of the former-German Democratic Republic (GDR)'s best jazz musicians.

Central to the project and members of the GDR's most accomplish advanced combo - the Zentralquartett - are the Workshop's leader, pianist Ulrich Gumpert; drummer Günter "Baby" Sommer who splits the writing chores here with Gumpert; plus reedist Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky and trombonist Conrad Bauer. The band is filled out with top studio players of the day who worked with the Zentrals in other bands: smooth trumpeter and flugelhornist Heinz Becker, saxophonists Manfred Hering (alto) and Helmut Forsthoff (tenor) plus solid bassist Klaus Koch.

With Zentralquartett, Gumpert, who won the prestigious Albert Mangelsdorff German Jazz Prize in November 2005, often manages to combine traditional German folk music and agit-prop melodies with his personalized adaptation of Bop, Blues and Gospel. Those primary influences are missing here though, with the eight compositions fully immersed in Black American musical methods. In more than just the band's title in fact, the pianist shows his debt to and refinement of similar concepts used after mid-century by bassist Charles Mingus.

Not that thereu's any hint of imitation. Except for one unfortunate lapse, luckily left for the final track, Gumpert and his associates turn out a stellar small group session, parts of which could easily have fit in the 1960s-1970s Blue Note or Atlantic catalogue, yet with more advanced musical flashes than the purely imitative American, so-called Young Lions were offering at the time (1990s).

Most distinctive track is the 17-minute "The Pursuit", which relates to even earlier rhythm inflections then Mingus-modernism. The link is to classic Count Basie-led bands' ability to swing powerfully while steaming along at a relaxed andante pace.

Thus, rather than any Mingus trombonist, Bauer plays as if he is long-time Basie-ite Al Grey, as his brassy slurs and plunger tones throb on top of carefully-arranged slithery horn parts and a walking bass line. When Petrowsky takes over the tune with double-tongued smears and honks, he's reminiscent of a spiky Cannonball Adderley, with his blues tonality peaking through multiphonic intervallic leaps and harsh split tones. All the while, behind them, the pianist oscillates between sparse Monkish comping and Bobby Timmons-like finger-snapping licks.

These amplifications of Monk, Mingus and gospel-funk filleted with more modern harmonics inform many of the other tunes as well. Most prominently there's the steady keyboard blues progression and avant-gutbucket runs from Bauer on Sommer's "Blues for I.M."; the Mingusian horn charts and quick tempo change from lope to agitato on Gumpert's "Baryschna/The fugitive"; and the contrapuntal call-and-response note-trading with smeared and flutter tongued riffs and split tone intensity from the horns on the title track.

One noteworthy departure comes on the drummer's "Marcia Funebre", where the altered horn parts move forward in rondo format, undulating above a percussive undertow that includes impressionistic bell pealing from the composer. "Marcia Funebre" also showcases Becker's burnished Tomasz Stanko-out-of-Kenny Wheeler flugelhorn work.

Although it must be admitted that at times a few of the tutti passages and horn harmonies sound a little closer to Henry Mancini's blaring "Peter Gun" TV show score than Mingus'best work, the only completely unsatisfying track is Gumpert's "Hymn". With the pianist outputting mechanized faux-gospel licks à la Les McCann and containing a syrupy sax solo that sounds like David Sanborn at his most commercial, the composition seems to have wandered in from a pop-R&B date next door. But set up your system to skip over this track and instead listen to the superior work that precedes it.

If the Workshop Band is so memorable on this outing from more than a decade ago, imagine — if it's still together — how impressive it must sound today.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Blues for I.M. 2. Baryschna/The fugitive 3. Marcia Funebre 4. Smell a Rat 5. Ode an Marul 6. The Pursuit 7.Nicht Gewollt 8. Hymne

Personnel: Heinz Becker (trumpet and flugelhorn); Conrad Bauer (trombone); Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky and Manfred Hering (alto saxophone and clarinet); Helmut Forsthoff (tenor saxophone); Ulrich Gumpert (piano); Klaus Koch (bass) and Günter "Baby" Sommer(drums)