Ulrich Gumpert Workshop Band

Berlin/New York
Jazz Werkstatt JW 10142

About 6,500 kilometres by air separate Brooklyn from Berlin, and it took East German pianist/composer Ulrich Gumpert and his Workshop Band only 40 years to make the trip. Arguably the most important – and definitely the most experimental – bandleader to come from the GDR, Thuringia-born, Berlin-based Gumpert first began recording his unique arrangements with like-minded musicians in 1972.

Since that time in big bands, duos and the famous Zentralquartett, the pianist has evolved a style that is both populist and progressive. His creations mix hard-bop, gospel and blues influences with selected Teutonic marches and folk songs Aus Teutschen Landen or “from German lands”, burlesquing the war horses as he uses their blunt underpinning as a basis for first-rate jazz. That’s why this session, recorded live at Brooklyn’s Irondale Cultural Center as part of the four-day Jazz Werkstatt Berlin-New York festival is doubly memorable. It’s the very first time Gumpert’s large ensemble music was exposed to an audience in the city still thought of as the jazz capital of the world.

Of course the seven other musicians in this version of the ensemble are at least a generation younger than those in the original Workshop Band. The core of that earlier group joins Gumpert in Zentralquartett, while this octet is populated by young players whose varied and extensive experience makes the German capital a contender for Number One jazz city. There’s even a ringer. American-born, Berlin-based Paul Brody, who appeared at the festival with his Sadawi quintet, takes the trumpet chair.

Besides his skill as an orchestrator and improviser, Gumpert has always been open to new concepts from other musicians. This is demonstrated by the choice of material here. One of the two long tracks is “The End of Dow Jones”, a sardonic dig at the stock market downturn, composed by band member trombonist Christof Thewes. With Gumpert’s power comping and kinetic pulsing holding the piece together, the performance encompasses impressionistic pastels, harmonized horn parts and an infectious Basie band-like lope. Popping out from this polyphonic cacophony are the soloists – especially Thewes, who effortlessly slides from guffawing tailgate smears to piston-pumping bites. Adding to the spirited excitement are calming grace notes from Brody and bravura flutter tonguing and slender trills from alto saxophonist Henrik Walsdorf and clarinetist Michael Thieke. Finally drummer Michael Griener wraps things up with a proper primitivist backbeat.

An exceptional variant of “Aus Teutschen Landen” is the CD’s other track. With musicians of such high quality in his band, Gumpert has the perfect helpmates for the parodistic yet loving pastiche his signature composition has become. With thematic references clanking by at Autobahn speed, the program is thick with Charles Mingus-like gospelish tension from the horns one minute, and an aggressive martial beat from Grenier the next. Gentle folk melodies alternate with multiphonic shrills and pressurized vibrato from the reed players; while a bumping polka played by Griener and bassist Jan Roder conjure up visions of dirndl and lederhosen- wearing rustics schuhplatten. As well, long before the satisfying finale of strummed harmonies and clusters from Gumpert, Thewes' laughing trombone references “Tiger Rag” and through it the German instrumental virtuosity that helped fuel early jazz.

The freest currents of jazz later migrated across the Atlantic, influencing Europeans to create their own original sounds. This performance gave the Irondale audience –and by extension CD listeners – the chance to experience one of the masterful applications of this freedom.

Booklet Notes by Ken Waxman (www.jazzword) Toronto February 2013