When Peter Brötzmann declined — in somewhat unnecessarily brusque terms, I thought — my invitation to join Tyshawn Sorey in a late-night duo performance at Jazzfest Berlin in 2017, my thoughts very quickly turned to Gebhard Ullmann, the highly experienced saxophonist, composer and bandleader who deserves to be a great deal better known outside his native Germany. The way it worked out, I was only sorry that I hadn’t asked Ullmann first. He and Sorey (the festival’s artist in residence) had never met or spoken before; their set was completely improvised, and provided a perfect exposition of what magic such musicians can create together in the right circumstances. I won’t forget it, and neither will anyone else who was in the Seitenbühne at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele that night.
Ullmann is one of those musicians whose inquisitive nature leads him to explore all sorts of environments. One of them is a multinational quintet called Basement Research, in which he plays tenor saxophone and bass clarinet and is joined by Steve Swell on trombone, Julian Argüelles on baritone saxophone, Pascal Niggenkemper on double bass and Gerald Cleaver on drums. Their new album, Impromptus and Other Short Works, is just out.
When he sent me a copy, Ullmann expressed his puzzlement that the early reviews had described the music as “free jazz”. “I’m not sure I get it,” he wrote. “Maybe times changed and now for the average people this is free jazz. Not that I have a problem with the term … but I do have a lot of other ‘free’ projects while this one focuses a lot on my compositions. I see myself here in the lineage of Mingus transferred using my and today’s composition techniques — but maybe Mingus would be call a free jazz musician today as well. Strange.”
Whatever you’d call Mingus, you could call Ullmann as well. To me his pieces for this group take their cue from Blues & Roots and Oh Yeah! — the bands with three or four low or low-ish horns, no trumpet or other high-pitched instrument on top, the spontaneity of their interpretation and the occasional burst of collective polyphony ensured by Mingus’s method of teaching them the pieces by ear. I doubt that’s how Ullmann does it, but whatever his method he achieves a similar level of warmth, flexibility and sheer humanity.
The tunes are often bluesy, sometimes hymn-like, encouraging each voice to interact with the others. Some of them have 12-tone components, adding a tart flavour to the underlying bluesiness. Each of the 11 tracks lasts between two and a half and six minutes, and the sense of compression may remind you pleasingly of the sort of event-density jazz records used to have before the invention of the LP.
Individually, the musicians are ceaselessly creative. I always love to hear Argüelles on baritone, and his solo on the opening “Gospel” is nothing short of magnificent. On “Lines — Impromptu #2” Swell reminds me of a young Roswell Rudd, with a wider repertoire of extended techniques. Ullmann’s impassioned and beautifully tapered bass clarinet solo on “Almost Twenty-Eight” receives excellent support from Niggenkemper and from the other two horns, who supply the sort of lightly sketched backgrounds that turn up throughout this very carefully structured album. Every track benefits from the presence of Cleaver, who is one of the most stimulating drummers around; here he gets a warm, slightly fuzzy sound from his snare-drum and tom-toms that suits the overall picture perfectly.
If you don’t know Ullmann’s music, this album is a very welcoming place to start. What it’s called is completely beside the point.
* The photograph of Gebhard Ullmann was taken in Berlin in 2017 by Camille Blake. The Basement Research album is on the WhyPlayJazz label.