Have Single Reed Will Travel

The Trans-Atlantic Career of German Reedman Gebhard Ullmann
CODA Issue 335

By Ken Waxman

Tall, broad-shouldered and with a bullet-shaped shaven head, if German multi-reedist Gebhard Ullmann was an actor, he could be typecast in the role of a militaristic army officer or super-efficient business manager. His lack of on-stage patter reinforces the image as well.

But while super-efficient in his music, the Berlin-based arranger, composer and band leader is no soul-less organization man. Instead Ullmann, whose favored axes are tenor saxophone, bass flute and bass clarinet, could be termed a polymorphic creator. His output ranges from languid chamber-style improv with his long-standing Clarinet Trio or with different piano-bass-woodwind configurations, to righteously swinging romps with his Basement Research group or as part of the co-op Conference Call combo. That’s not counting his few sideman jobs, his folkloric reeds-and-accordion Tá Lam band, gigs with local pick-up bands or his acclaimed CD project with the NDR big band.

“All these groups are important to me,” he avers. “Sure, some work more than others, but that’s a given for non-musical reasons. Some may be more active at times but this may change the following year.”

Since 1990, which he describes as “a turning point in my career”, the reedman, who was born in Bad Godesberg, south of Bonn, has steadily amassed a clutch of music awards in Europe and North America, released a series of well-received CDs and become a constant presence in clubs and festivals on both sides of the Atlantic.

Now in the midst of his bi-centenary year – he turns 50 on November 2 while away from home on a gig – Ullmann, who annually plays about 100 concerts and travels constantly, is probably the epitome of the 21st Century mid-Atlantic improviser. With a series of acclaimed recent CDs – including the Die Blaue Nixe (Between The Lines) and Basement Research Live In Münster (NotTwo Records) – plus an appearance with his Clarinet Trio on Leo Record’s 25th Anniversary CD – he has organized a 50th birthday tour with a new Basement Research combo. That five-piece group’s new Soul Note CD appears around the same time.

No Pan-European Nationalist, Ullmann’s American connections are very important to him. “In 1990 I went to New York with a musical vision,” he explains in late summer, while taking a weekend break from a long German tour “At that point I wanted to move on and found quite a few like-minded musicians in New York.”

This knowledge transferred into affiliations, and soon he put together the first Basement Research band with members of Brooklyn’s Corner Store Syndicate: bassist Drew Gress, tenor saxophonist Ellery Esklein and drummer Phil Hayes. Making further connections, Ullmann spent the next decade dividing his time between Berlin – he lived in the working-class/artistic Kreuzberg neighbourhood then – and New York, where he lived first in Brooklyn, than Manhattan’s Upper West side.

From that beginning his New World playing opportunities multiplied. Now, he steadily plays with Conference Call, organized by pianist Michael Jefrey Stevens and bassist Joe Fonda; Fonda’s Bottom Out band, guitarist Scott Dubois’ quartet, drummer George Schuller’s Schulldogs and many otherwise Yank groups.

“I first met Gebhard around 1996 or 1997 through drummer Phil Haynes who thought we would be able to assist each other in sharing booking contacts for Europe,” recalls pianist Stevens, who now lives in Memphis, Tenn. “Gebhard came to my apartment in Brooklyn. We played some duets and I was immediately struck by his incredible musicianship, musical sensibility and virtuosity. I also found his compositions extremely interesting.”

Conference Call was born soon afterwards, with the business responsibility equally divided among the pianist, the reedist and bassist Fonda. All book concerts and find labels to release the band’s CDs. “We share contacts and information and help each other in our various projects independent of Conference Call,” adds Stevens. Conference Call has released four CDs and has a fifth in the can awaiting the right record deal.

This pattern of co-operation repeats itself with variations as Ullmann’s career intensifies. “I work in Europe a lot and my European bands are mostly located in Berlin,” he explains. “But, as you know, Berlin is now a melting pot. I have bands with Berlin musicians as well as French musicians, musicians from Bulgaria or Australia and musicians from the U.S. living in Berlin

“It looks now as this situation may overlap even more in the future as it seems more and more musicians from New York City are spending time in Berlin as I did it the other way around.”

The co-led quartet he now leads with trombonist Steve Swell resulted from an encounter similar to the one with Stevens. Swell, a long-time Manhattan resident, first heard Ullmann play with Conference Call in 2003 and was immediately impressed by his “great use of space with the bass clarinet”. Later, on tour himself in Europe, Swell asked if the reedist could set up a Berlin gig. Soon the two discovered, that as Swell says, “Geb and I are on the same page as far as getting our music out there”

Joining with veterans, bassist Hilliard Greene and drummer Barry Altschul, the band recorded Desert Songs and Other Landscapes for CIMP the next year and since then has toured both North America and Europe.

Although keeping a trans-oceanic band together involves a lot of e-mails and telephone calls, Swell says the situation has worked out because “whatever minor ego problems there might be, none have interfered with making good music or any of the organizational priorities.” Playing a healthy mixture of improvised and composed pieces, arranged by either the brassman or the reedist, “we see what works best, discuss what could be better and then make adjustments. Sometimes you just don’t know what will work till you perform the material. We’re also very spontaneous on the bandstand in terms of what we will play next. Barry [Altschul] and Hill [Greene] are also invaluable in their input in how to organize the music.” This fall Swell is touring Europe with Ullmann as part of the new five-piece Basement Research combo.

Others of the reedist’s European bands include The Clarinet Trio with Jürgen Kupke on regular clarinet and Michael Thieke on alto clarinet – Ullmann plays bass clarinet – and E and U Mann, a new Berlin-based combo, featuring Daniel Erdmann on tenor and baritone saxophones, Ullmann, bassist Johannes Fink and drummer Christian Iillinger. Today home is a large apartment in East Berlin’s Mitte area, which he shares with his wife, two sons, aged 16 and 21, and his collection of reed instruments.

Ullmann initially decided to investigate New York after his friend, guitarist Andreas Willers, introduced him to Haynes, whom the guitarist had met while attending a Canadian improv workshop. Still, the New York odyssey was no bagatelle for the reedist. He had already studied with American reedist David Liebman in Europe, but wanted to experience the American way of approaching improvised music and play with New York rhythm sections.

Interestingly enough, the division between North American and European improv is still apparent when rhythm sections are involved, he maintains, but that difference too is fading. Nevertheless he does point out that “the leader principle in the U.S. versus the co-lead band principle in Berlin”, is still another discrepancy. “This of course affects the way you look at a band and the way you work.”

In hindsight, the period spent living in New York was an extension of his constant search for varied musical stimuli which had already led him to move to Berlin from Hamburg in 1983. At that point he had been studied medicine – along with music – for seven years. Coming from a musical family – his mother played piano, his sister guitar and flute and his brother the organ – the decision to abandon medicine was accepted with surprising equanimity. “Even my dad was cool”, he remembers.

The family was probably “cooler”, when they realized that Ullmann’s musicianship quickly guaranteed him work. “By my third month in Berlin I had already performed 15 concerts with different bands,” he recalls. Within the year, he and Willers won the top newcomer award from the Deutsche Phonoakademie Award. This was just the first of his many honors, which over time has included a 1987 SWR Radio Jazz Award, the 1999 Julius Hemphill Composition Award, a couple of studio project awards and being named Berlin’s composer-in-residence two different years. The honoraria attached came in handy as well, he admits. “The first awards I used to pay back money I owed to people or my bank or to buy instruments,” he recalls. “Later on they made a lot of recordings possible; helped me with my Tá Lam project and much more.”

Ullmann, who studied classical flute for many years, asserts that “I started improvising from the very first time I held an instrument in my hand.” Oddly enough while he followed the basic and later contemporary flute repertoire, as a teenager his ear was yanked towards improvisation after hearing such so-called avant-garde rock bands as Germany’s Amon Düül, Can and Kraftwerk plus British groups the Soft Machine, Henry Cow and Hatfield and the North. “In the 1970s, there were great improvisers in rock music,” he remembers. “As one of my main interests always was improvising, it felt natural to start playing jazz-oriented music.”

But to do this professionally he had to leave Hamburg, where he had already started his own band – keyboards, a singer and winds – and head for Berlin. Nearly 25 years later he exults that the German capital is “the most interesting city for playing jazz not only in Germany, but maybe in Europe. Politics and advanced social understanding in society for me is part of culture in a city I like to live in and there’s a good portion of both in the Berlin air. Areas in Berlin keep changing since I moved here. And this is what makes life interesting.”

Immersing himself in as many scenes as possible to learn as much as he could, Ullmann jobbed with R&B bands, rock bands, salsa bands, a gamelan orchestra, all kinds of big bands and orchestras, Turkish music groups, percussion bands and with singers. “I specialized in studio work on piccolo for a while,” he recalls humorously. “Some of these bands I only played a couple of gigs with, others recorded several CDs and won awards, some were local and some had international status.”

During the same period he even composed for film and dance projects. “How did it come about? Directors heard my music and asked me if I was interested in collaborating with them. This was definitely helpful and broadened my horizons,” he affirms.

Similarly, the Goethe Institute sponsored him on overseas tours. “I was always curious, and when travelling I played with musicians in different parts of Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Indonesia, Eastern Europe and, of course, all over Western Europe and North America,” he recalls. “Besides travelling with my music I keep travelling a lot privately. This is part of my personality and adds to the overall picture.”

His European reputation amplified with the organization of his Tá Lam project in the mid-1990s .Originally conceived for an accordionist with Ullmann overdubbing all the reed parts, it evolved into a 10-piece woodwind/accordion aggregation, which made a sonic splash when it performed at Canadian jazz festivals in the late 1990s. His reputation was further cemented after 1998 when the first CD by his clarinet trio was released.

“Just recently my first Tá Lam CD from 1993 has been called ‘a milestone of woodwind music’ in a couple of major magazines,” he notes, “and after all these years, the Clarinet Trio is now being called ‘a group which establishes a genre’.”

Some of his plans for 2008 involve reviving Tá Lam as a 10-reeds-plus-accordion band to perform what he dubs The Charles Mingus project. Similarly his Clarinet Trio with Thieke and Kupe will enlarge to become the Clarinet Double Trio linking up with the French Trio de Clarinettes of Armand Angster, Jean Marc Foltz and Sylvain Kassap.

Extensive low-pitched harmonies unite all of Ullmann’s reed projects. “I like the overtones because I like the way they sound, although for many years soprano sax was my main axe. The Clarinet Trio for instance gets the full spectrum with clarinet, alto clarinet and bass clarinet like a chamber music string trio. What is new is that I use the full spectrum of reeds including the low ones to work the full spectrum of tonality and not have bass and drums build the ‘basement’. If I use bass, I redefine its role inside a band with myself also playing the bass clarinet. Tá Lam’s ‘rhythm section’ is four bass clarinets and a baritone sax and the New Basement Research CD has a low front line of baritone sax, tenor sax or bass clarinet, and trombone.”

Ullmann welcomes new musical challenges. When it came time to record Die Blaue Nixe, for instance, bassist Chris Dahlgren, who now lives in Berlin and had participated in other Ullmann dates, including contributing arrangement to the 2004 Soul Note big band project, suggested contacting American pianist Art Lande, whose playing the reedist only knew from Lande’s 1970s ECM discs. Yet the unexpected match-up is notable for its creation of high-quality jazz chamber music.

Serendipity has prompted other project as well. The big band CD was the result of a telephone call from someone at NDR proposing “a project with my music and myself as a soloist. So I thought of composers with different cultural background to arrange my music and ended up with arrangers from Tokyo, Paris, New York and Frankfurt.”

Other anomalies exist as well, Recently Ullmann debuted Schwartzegeist/The Sun Ra project. It features him leading an acoustic jazz trio plus samplers, electronics and spoken-word artist Sadiq Bey, a former Detroiter-turned-Berliner. Having won yet another Berlin studio award Schwartzegeist will soon be recorded. “I’ve been experimenting with DJs for years. I worked with electronics in the 1980s, even played the lyricon,” recalls Ullmann. “But I decided at a certain time to work on the acoustic side – which doesn’t mean I don't like electronic devices in music – they just didn’t work for my ideas. This project may be a new beginning in that way.”

Swell has noticed some subtle modifications in Ullmann’s improvising during their association. “I think any time you play with a group of individuals your playing changes or adjusts somewhat to that particular dynamic. We [Ullmann-Swell-Greene-Altschul] are primarily interested in a group sound, not a band of soloists. So we’re working towards that goal all the time.”

Stevens is even more analytical. “When we first started Conference Call Gebhard did not want to perform any music that was blues derived or had a real quarter- note swinging feel. He generally wasn’t interested in 12 or 16 or 24 bar forms,” the pianist remembers. “This forced me to compose different kinds of music for the group. For example, on our first CD we perform my polka (“Could This Be a Polka?”). On our last CD we perform my tango (“Little Pete’s Diner”). I feel that the group is constantly evolving and growing. We’re developing our own musical language by listening and learning from each other.”

Physical impressions of Ullmann can also be misleading, explains Swell. “When I first played with Geb, I got off the train and right to a rehearsal in Berlin before our gig that night. We went through all his tunes, all of them difficult. I was very tired but dealt with it. I thought, ‘Wow, this guy is very serious and demanding’.

“But as I have gotten to know him he reinforces the cliché that ‘you can't judge a book by its cover’. Gebhard is really a very open person. Open to ideas and suggestions and very patient although you may not think so to meet him. We are on the same page in terms of career, maturity about things, sensitive to each other’s feelings and grateful for the amount of work each of us does to get tours for this band.”

Involved with water sports such as scuba diving, snorkeling and kite-surfing, Ullmann says it helps his thought process to see what is going on underwater. Tied in with this, and belying any baggage that could be associated with his potentially menacing skin-head-like appearance, he’s also passionately committed to environmental issues and trying to minimize global warming. “This affects my music, my children and the way I live. In my own personal life I try to consider these things day by day. As a musician do you have to fly low-cost airlines and play a one-nighter in, let’s say, France just because you can do it now? And yes whenever I had money I have left I put it into solar companies.”

Given his history it’s no surprise that Ullmann is constantly testing new groups and new musical formulae. His view of what constitutes jazz is broad – perhaps wider than that of many of his contemporaries.

“I have a very wide idea of what jazz is,” he explains in Berlin that day, having just returned from gigs near the Baltic Sea. “Classical, gamelan, contemporary composed music – Messiaen, Stravinsky, Stockhausen – all the great jazz masters, some more than others, sometimes a little bit of rock, it’s all in there.

“I’m also a world musician, meaning I use music from all over the world – and I travel a lot, but there’s a certain conception when it comes to how I use all this. The sounds are abstracted and get a new meaning – my meaning – it’s all Ullmann.

“This is what connects all my so-called concept albums. It is not about doing this today and something different tomorrow,” he insists. “The aesthetic doesn’t change. The trios may be more chamber-music-like and highlight other details and dynamic ranges in the reed work, but maybe that’s not true, since the Clarinet Trio can play full blast too. I like to explore the soft and the noisy ends but this I do in all band formats. My oeuvre works as a whole.”

Many jazz fans on at least a couple of continents would agree with this statement.

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Gebhard Ullmann: Discography since 1990

1. Die Blaue Nixe (Between The Lines) 2006 Ullmann (bcl, ts, ss, ocarinas, toys) Art Lande (piano, toys) Chris Dahlgren (bass and preparations, toys)

2. Basement Research: Live In Münster (NotTwo Records) 2006 Ullmann (bcl, ts, ss) Tony Malaby (ts) Drew Gress (b) Phil Haynes (dr)

3. CutItOut (Leo Records) 2006 Ullmann (bcl, bfl) Chris Dahlgren (bass, electronics) Jay Rosen (dr)

4. Conference Call: Live At The Outpost Performance Space (482 Music) 2006 Ullmann (bcl, ts, ss) Michael Stevens (p) Joe Fonda (b) Gerry Hemingway (dr)

5. BassX3 (Drimala Records) 2005 Ullmann (bcl, bfl) Peter Herbert (b) Chris Dahlgren (bass, toys, electronics)

6. The Clarinet Trio: Ballads And Related Objects (Leo Records) 2004 Ullmann (bcl) Jürgen Kupke (cl) Michael Thieke (acl)

7. The Big Band Project (Soul Note) 2004 Ullmann (bcl, ts, ss) with the NDR Big Band plus guests. Arrangements by Satoko Fujii, Andy Emler, Günter Lenz, Chris Dahlgren

8. Desert Songs And Other Landscapes (CIMP Records) 2004 Ullmann (bcl, ts) Steve Swell (tb) Hilliard Greene (b) Barry Altschul (dr)

9. Conference Call: Spirals. The Berlin Concert (482 Music) 2004 Ullmann (bcl, ts, ss) Michael Stevens (p) Joe Fonda (b) George Schuller (dr)

10. Conference Call: Variations On A Master Plan (Leo Records) 2003 Ullmann (bcl, ts, ss) Michael Stevens (p) Joe Fonda (b) Han Bennink (dr)

11. Conference Call: Final Answer (Soul Note) 2002 Ullmann (bcl, ss) Michael Stevens (p) Joe Fonda (b) Matt Wilson (dr)

12. The Clarinet Trio: Translucent Tones (Leo Records) 2002 Ullmann (bcl) Jürgen Kupke (cl) Theo Nabicht (bcl)

13. Essencia (Between The Lines) 2001 Ullmann (bcl, ts, ss) Carlos Bica (b) Jens Thomas (p)

14. Tá Lam Zehn: Vancouver Concert (Leo Records) 2000 Ullmann (bcl, ss, wfl) with the ten-piece woodwind/accordion project

15. Kreuzberg Park East (Soul Note Records) 1999 Ullmann (ts, ss, bcl) Ellery Eskelin (ts) Drew Gress (b) Phil Haynes (dr)

16. Clarinet Trio. Oct, 1. '98 (LeoLab Records) 1999 Ullmann (bcl) Jürgen Kupke (cl) Theo Nabicht (bcl)

17. Trad Corrosion (Nabel Records) 1997 Ullmann (bcl, ts, ss, bassocarina) Andreas Willers (g) Phil Haynes (perc)

18. Basement Research (Soul Note Records) 1995 Ullmann (ts, ss, bcl) Ellery Eskelin (ts) Drew Gress (b) Phil Haynes (dr)

19. Moritat (99 Records) 1994 Ullmann (bcl, ss, voice, bass ocarina, wfl) with the woodwind/accordion project Tá Lam Acht

20. Tá Lam (99 Records) 1993 Ullmann (overdubbing all woodwinds) and Hans Hassler (accordion)

21. Suite Noire (Nabel Records) 1992 Ullmann (bcl, fl, bfl, ts, ss) Willers (g) Bob Stewart (tuba) Marvin Smitty Smith (dr)

22. Joe Fonda’s Quintet: Loaded Basses (CIMP Records) 2006 Claire Daley (bs) Joe Daley (tuba) Ullmann (bcl) Michael Rabinovitz (bassoon) Joe Fonda (b) Gerry Hemingway (dr)

23. Joe Fonda’s Quintet: Full Circle Suite (CIMP Records) 1999 Taylor Ho Bynum (tp) Ullmann (bcl) Chris Jonas (as) Joe Fonda (b) Kevin Norton (dr)

24. Günter Lenz’s Springtime: Strict Minimum (Jazzwerkstatt) 2007 Claus Stötter (tp) E.L. Petrowsky (as) Ullmann ( ts, bcl, ss) Dieter Glawischnig (p) Guenter Lenz (b) Bill Elgart (dr)

Günter Lenz’s Springtime: Major League (Bellaphon Records) 1992 Claus Stötter (tp) E.L. Petrowsky (as) Ullmann ( ts, bcl, ss, afl) Bob Degen (p) Guenter Lenz (b) Thomas Cremer (dr)

Website: www.gebhard-ullmann.com/order.htm

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