Gebhard Ullmann / Chris Dahlgren / Clayton Thomas

February 7, 2013

Bass X 3 Transatlantic

Leo Records CD LR 625


Suspicious Activity

Creative Sources CS 213 CD

By Ken Waxman

Experiments with ensembles featuring double basses-and-low-pitched instruments or just double basses aren’t exactly commonplace, but over the past couple of decades experimenters such as Joëlle Léandre, Barry Guy and William Parker have demonstrated that this unusual instrumentation can be both appropriate and stimulating. Here are other two sessions that add to that canon.

Directed by Gebhard Ullmann, Bass X 3 blends his bass flute or bass clarinet timbres with the weighty bull fiddle activities of Chris Dahlgren and Clayton Thomas. An essay in subterranean tones, the opaque muddiness that could result from these deliberations is avoided as the bassists also play so-called objects. Taking that concept one step further Sean Ali and Pascal Niggenkemper create an original sonic language by preparing their acoustic basses with items including kitchenware, aluminum cans, lampshades and other found objects. The resulting reverberations end up sounding as if they could come from a variety of other instruments.

Ullmann, who often partners with Americans such as trombonist Steve Swell and pianist Michael Jefry Stevens and who composed all the tracks on Transatlantic lives in Berlin as do Chris Dahlgren and Clayton Thomas. Dahlgren, who has also worked with Anthony Braxton, is an American, and Thomas, who has played with just about everyone else on the advanced music scene, is Australian. Sean Ali and Pascal Niggenkemper, whose Suspicious Activity unrolls during 22 [!] short tracks are based in NYC, with Dayton-native Ali working in bands such as Natura Morta and the German-French Niggenkemper working with the likes of clarinetist Joachim Badenhorst and trumpeter Thomas Heberer.

Geography aside, the bands’ differing approaches to the bass clef pays off in unique programs. Although the exploitation of subterranean tones are Transatlantic’s raison d’étre, weighty muddiness is avoided with the subtle introduction of other textures. Vibes-like plinks meet harp-like arpeggios on “The No Piece”, during which Ullmann’s wispy bass flute tone could come from a dizi; and a suggestion of music box tinkles is present on “The Epic”. That languid yet sinewy track is also notable for Ullmann’s bass clarinet pressure which ranges from fog-horn blowing to staccato reed biting. Meantime the pedal-point undertow from the dual bassists swells so that strings also judder, jump, scrub and stop. Never losing momentum the piece reaches a climax of staccato slaps and col legno scrapes from the bassists and mid-range blowing from the reedist.

Despite the preceding track title, the CD’s true epic is the three-part “Transatlantic” suite that begins and ends the disc, as well as animates its middle. However “Transatlantic (Part One)” simply outlines the narrative, contrasting wispy and robust tones from Ullmann and bonded bass slicing, while “Transatlantic (Part Two)”, merely confirm the yawning density of the trio’s creation, at nearly 20 minutes “Transatlantic (Part Three)”, is the major statement. As much a summation of the group’s ethos as well as the suite’s finale, the shifting bass-string stopping and guttural bass clarinet whines create an original landscape that’s as weighty as it is pointillist. Eventually the protoplasmic mass inflates enough so that the combination of intense vibrations from Ullmann and the col legno strategy of Thomas and Dahlgren almost take on electronic properties. While the ending may be as shredded as sounds fed into a granular software program, the tune maintains its shape even as it become more staccato and agitated.

Neither electronics, nor effects nor processing is present on PascAli’s self-described “little monster children”, and with the mini-tune times ranging from 54 seconds to less than four minutes, there’s no space for prolonged expression. But the triumph of this CD’s program is how many unexpected textures the two can produce acoustically without interest or ideas flagging. With the re-jigged bass strings allowing them to use extended techniques in a unique fashion, at points the warm woodiness of the basses is almost completely absent.

Instead string friction, scrubs and stretches expose canine-like yelps and barks, aviary-like squeaks and squeals, motor-starting grinds, bell-ringing and what could be throat-clearing. On “witch tricks” for instance, one man’s bass strings screams as if screws are being driven into its body as the other player outputs narrow snarls that could come from an English horn. On “chicken talk” the parallel, though never harmonious string stops take on altissimo properties usually associated with reed instruments; while on “japanese garden” mallet blows suggest pick-axe patterns from one bull fiddler while the other’s tremolo strumming and twanging clanks in sympathy.

Narratives may also involve Ali and Niggenkemper sounding col legno strokes from scroll to spike during “mechanics at the balloonparty”; or on “serene moment” tightening and loosening the strings while vibrating them. Yet despite these mad-scientist-like experiments, there’s never a question that the properties of the acoustic double bass itself is the centre of this research. This focus is what makes Transatlantic and Suspicious Activity valuable not only as listening experiences but as glimpses into the instrument’s continuing musical evolution.

Tracks: Transatlantic : Transatlantic (Part One) ; The Thing; The No Piece; 4. The Epic; Transatlantic Part Two); Ornette’s Closet; Berlin Is Full Of Lonely People (Part One); Berlin Is Full Of Lonely People (Part Two); Transatlantic (Part Three)

Personnel: Gebhard Ullmann: bass clarinet and bass flute; Chris Dahlgren and Clayton Thomas: basses

Tracks: Suspicious: endpin battle; chinese mask; Britpop; chicken talk; how long does it take styrofoam to become earth again?; buzzing bees; dog bite; perpetua; pavarotties; sawing logs; wind ; machines; highway to hell; kissing f-holes; mechanics at the balloonparty; serene moment; bonanza’s nuts; witch tricks; mating whales; industrial romance; japanese garden; the mouth

Personnel: Suspicious: Sean Ali and Pascal Niggenkemper: basses

–For The New York City Jazz Record February 2013