Ulrich Gumpert

Workshop Band
Jazzwerkstatt JW 070-01/070-02


Auf der Elbe schwimmt ein rosa Krokodil

Intakt CD 142

Maybe it could have been called The Great Unknown. Certainly the American focus of improvised music until the last century’s last couple of decades meant that some of the most exciting sounds extant were unknown and literally unheard by many people who should have known better.

Case in point: East German pianist/composer/arranger Ulrich Gumpert. During the 1970s, as these two exceptional sessions demonstrate, with his small group Synopsis – later renamed Zentralquartett – and his Workshop Band, the Berlin-based pianist was making music that was in many cases superior and definitely equal to any American sounds. Unfortunately Gumpert and his associates labored under a double whammy. Not only were they playing in Europe – which for Yank jazzbos of the time was no more than a destination for out-of-work American legends – but they doing so in the Eastern Block when the Berlin Wall and the Cold War were still part of everyday life.

While it may have been little compensation for his and his bands’ isolation, residing in what then was the other side of the Iron Curtain, meant that earlier than many others, Gumpert and his band mates were able to develop a unique style colored by Teutonic folk music as much as modern jazz. Throughout the three CDs here – recorded in 1974, 1978 and 1979 – especially in the later large ensemble sets, the influence of Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk and especially Charles Mingus is evident. But so too are sonic memories related to the Prussian marches, Germanic hymns. pumping dance tunes and pastoral folk ditties that were part of everyday pre-and-post-war East Germany.

Organizationally, another parallel is noticeable, in particular on Auf der Elbe schwimmt ein rosa Krokodil, the earliest session. Like pianist Misha Mengelberg and drummer Han Bennink, contrasting icons of the ICP Orchestra, Gumpert here is the cool theorizer and conceptualist, while self-described Saxon percussionist Günter “Baby” Sommer animates the proceedings, as well as disrupting them as often as he can.

A tune like “Mehr aus teutschen landen” on the quartet CD for instance, begins with reflective passing chords from Gumpert, but is soon splintered asunder by Sommer’s insistence on activating a jungle-rhythm-affiliated beat. When that interpolation is superseded by a syncopated folk melody, that riff is equally subsumed by emboldened spectrofluctuation and Aylerian screeches from saxophonist Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky and capillary tremolo braying from trombonist Conrad Bauer. Eventually, as the drummer bluntly mix-mastering the beat you’re not sure whether you’re hearing a cha cha, a tango, a polka or a beer-hall anthem. Rallying with kinetic dynamics, Gumpert rescues the tune from tumbling into serious musical kitsch before the finale, but not before Sommer beats out a burlesque march rhythm.

Musical bags of tricks are opened up and scattered through the track on the 16½-minute “Krisis eines krokodils”, a group instant composition, as well. For instance, plunger trombone neighs and reverberating cymbal patterns are only countered by Gumpert’s formalistic chording of “Chopsticks” – albeit “Chopsticks” with key fanning and presto soundboard echoes – until the mock processional theme is further disrupted by growls and slurs from Bauer plus aviary squeals and wide, granulated atonal cries from Petrowsky. Sommer’s irregular beat-mongering and Gumpert’s keyboard pitter-patting eventually reach a tandem concordance, the better to accompany unexpected harmonic blending from the horns, as gorgeous as if it was being sung by two choristers. Unison recapping of the initial theme ends the piece on a high note, although Bauer can’t resist a pen-ultimate snort or Sommer a conclusive roll.

Four and five years later an additional four voices give Gumpert and the others supplementary textures and colors that are utilized with brio in live performances. Especially valuable is the thumping and walking bottom provided by bassist Klaus Koch (1936-2000), who for a time replaced Bauer in Synopsis. Overall though, the solos, compositions and band performance on both volumes of the collection are of such high standard that’s it’s difficult to rank any single track as more exceptional than others.

That said, a piece like “Aus Baby’s Wunderhorn /‘N Tango Für Gitti” on the first CD proves that Sommer – who composed the tune – was as familiar with musical mash-ups as the pianist. Here bell-ringing from the drummer and feverish piano slaps define the theme after a full-orchestra introduction is conveyed on wavering and hocketing chords. Evolving chromatically with stop-time episodes, the tune later makes room for irregular vibrato and altissimo timbres from Petrowsky. Further on, an unaccompanied broken-octave romp from Bauer introduces the tango that sounds more Arabic than Argentinean and is refined under swelling peeps and split tones from the reeds.

Massed contrapuntal vamps from different orchestral sections characterize “Auf Der Elbe Schwimmt Ein Rosa”, as well. Swarming along on polyphonic piano key sweeps and Klaus’ walking bass, the track’s pulse is measured and chromatic at the same time. Humorously, Swing Era-novelty bands appear to be saluted in some of the solos to the same extent as Mingus’ and Monk’s large group extensions. Tenor saxophonist Iri Anonow for instance, builds solos from stop-time “nyah-nyah”s, plus cries, whistles and irregular bar jumps when he plays. Meantime, whoever plays the alto saxophone line advances it mercurially and declaratory; Heinz Becker’s trumpeting is suitably clean and legato; while the drums clink and clank; and piano chording turn from stately to splintering. With the layered textures concentrated in the composition’s final, super-speedy variant, the repeated tutti riffs are finally cut off by a Count Basie-like plink from Gumpert.

It’s more of the same on the Workshop Band’s second CD, recorded one year later, with Helmut Forsthoff in for Antonow. The ensemble’s eighth member is alto and tenor saxophonist Manfred Hering, though the supposition is that the alto solos are by Petrowsky.

Sardonically original, some pieces on the disc manage to shoehorn Germanic marches as often as big band swing into the performances. More interesting are “Blau Blusen Blues” and “Hilferuf einer Schneck”. The later manages to find room for atmospheric cymbal echoes, gong resonation and yodeling from Sommer – who composed the tune – with Ziggy Elman-like lead trumpeting plus barnyard sonic approximations from the brass and harsh split-tone cries and tongue slaps from the reeds. As the trumpeter and trombonist whiz by with arching triplet slurs, Sommer smacks and drags beats from his kit and Gumpert dynamically fans the keys so that the resulting portamento link chromatically prods the piece forward. Following staccatissimo horn action, pitched well above normal range, the reeds continuous repeat a distinct and newer leitmotif as the pianist softens his touch for a climatic summation.

“Blau Blusen Blues” is a Bauer-composed blues where Basie-like keyboard comping, Koch’s walking bass and typically boppish ching-ching cymbal pulses from Sommer confirm its links to the tradition. For contrast however, on top of inchoate pulses from the horns, Gumpert transforms metronomic tinkles to downward stair-step runs and Petrowsky extends his biting multiphonics with chirps and glottal punctuation. Stop-time, the circling horns then reach a crescendo of connected timbres with Mingus-influenced orchestral vamps and flutters. A glissando from the pianist wraps up the performance.

Too many listeners missed out on these first-class discs first time out. Those that didn’t will want to hear them again. Everyone benefits.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 070-01: 1. Marsch Marsch 2. Königskindisch 3a. Aus Baby’s Wunderhorn 3b ‘N Tango Für Gitti 4. Auf Der Elbe Schwimmt Ein Rosa Krokodil 5 Jubilee Suite 070-02: 1. Hahnenkopf 2. Septettfragment 3.Blau Blusen Blues 4. Echos von Karolinenhof 5. Hilferuf einer Schneck

Personnel: Heinz Becker (trumpet and flugelhorn); Conrad Bauer (trombone); Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky (soprano and alto saxophones and clarinet); Manfred Hering (alto and tenor saxophones); Iri Antonow [070-01] or Helmut Forsthoff [070-02]) (tenor saxophone; Ulrich Gumpert (piano); Klaus Koch (bass) and Günter “Baby” Sommer (drums)

Track Listing: Auf: 1. Krisis eines krokodils 2. Zweisam 3. Auf der Elbe schwimmt ein rosa krokodil 4. Petting zu “Take IV” 5. Take IV 6. Mehr aus teutschen landen

Personnel: Auf: Conrad Bauer (trombone); Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky (alto saxophone, clarinet and flutes); Ulrich Gumpert (piano) and Günter “Baby” Sommer (drums, percussion and mouth-harp)