Gebhard Ullmann's Basement Research - Impromptus and Other Short Works

Label: WhyPlayJazz, 2019

Personnel - Gebhard Ullmann: tenor saxophone, clarinet; Steve Swell: trombone; Julian Arguelles: baritone saxophone; Pascal Niggenkemper: bass; Gerald Cleaver: drums.


The avant-jazz forays engineered by German saxophonist/clarinetist Gebhard Ullmann are, per usual, excitingly strenuous and worth to dive into. The most recent release of his esteemed project Basement Research, now celebrating its 25th anniversary, is called Impromptus and Other Short Works, featuring Ullmann on tenor saxophone and bass clarinet alongside a quartet of compatible accomplices: trombonist Steve Swell, baritonist Julian Arguelles, bassist Pascal Niggenkemper, and drummer Gerald Cleaver.

Despite its title, “Gospel” is not an effusively happy tune of faith and devotion, rather feeling like a deep-rooted band march. Melodically conducted by trombone, the tune has the taciturn tones of the baritone sax bestowing extra consistency. Its calm intensity, illustrated by amiable folk touches in a Frisell kind of way, is transferred to “Kleine Figuren”, where the horn players, by turns, deliver their statements over an unremitting harmonic progression.

29 Shoes” makes us dance at the sound of its swinging short theme, suggesting a free-bop ride in the vicinity of “Fascinating Rhythm”. The pulsations rise and shine, combust, and then cool down, ending up in collective cacophonies while relying on both Cleaver’s lucid rhythmic maneuvers and Niggenkemper’s pedals to create tension.

The hook-filled “Almost Twenty-Eight” is an avant-garde delight with a virtuosic integration of written and improvised parts. Feel the power that comes from the burning solos and discover the adaptability of a rhythm section that knows exactly which moves to make for the sake of dynamics.

Six extemporary pieces get to showcase the musicians’ limber technique and spontaneous creativity. Both “Twelve Tones - Impromptu #5” and “Lines - Impromptu #2” display melodic ideas occasionally delivered in unison. They are quickly scattered in other directions or dissolved in calmer passages. In the case of the former piece, awesomely introduced by alto sax and trombone, we have the growling baritone infecting the scene after a few carefree interventions by the collective. In turn, the latter composition brims with expressive, groovy lines and colorful drumming patterns that take the form of simple cymbal scratches and rattles on the final section. Bowed bass vibratos also contribute, giving some support to Swell’s trombone manifesto.

The ceremonial “Impromptu #1” shows a predilection for deep notes, yet Ullmann’s eloquent tenor sax infuses some Eastern-flavored half steps over the modal changes, giving it the aspect of a spiritual song. “Sticks - Impromptu #4” directs the spotlight to Cleaver, who dilates his chops behind the drum kit with confidence, whereas “For Jim - Impromptu #6” starts as a rubato lament, but evolves into a waltz freshened up by a nice percussive flow with Latin traces.

This is a successful, enjoyable effort from a band that, knowing exactly where they want to go, has the intuition plus technical means to create winning music every step of the way.

Garde  A-

Garde A-

Favorite Tracks:
02 - Twelve Tones - Impromptu #5 ► 03 - Impromptu #1 ► 11- Almost Twenty-Eight

Steve Swell / Gebhard Ullmann - The Chicago Plan

Steve Swell: trombone; Gebhard Ullmann: saxophone, clarinet; Fred Lonberg-Holm: cello, electronics; Michael Zerang: drums.


Whenever American trombonist Steve Swell and German saxophonist/clarinetist Gebhard Ullmann get together for a new album or performance, one can expect pure energy within the creditable expeditions into the avant-garde/free territory. Assuring a diversity of attractive sounds, the moods adopted can rapidly shift from boisterous to reflective.

Their first recording together, as Ullmann-Swell Quartet, goes back to 2005 with Desert Songs And Other Landscapes (CIMP), proceeding in 2008 with Live in Montreal (City Hall), and again two years later with News? No News! (Jazzwerkstatt) In all three, they relied on a go-ahead rhythmic foundation laid down by bassist Hilliard Greene and drummer Barry Altschul.

In their new album, a celebration of a decade of friendship and musicianship, they resolved to expand their concept of sound and rhythm through approaches that lead to new possibilities. To achieve this, they renew the rhythm section by calling two skilled instrumentalists from Chicago, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, who is also in charge of electronics, and drummer Michael Zerang. The album/project gets the understandable title of The Chicago Plan.

Ullmann contributes with four compositions, including two parts of his magnificent suite “Variations on a Master Plan” whose Pt.3 fires up the recording. Making its way through an inebriating groove, this tune works as an irresistible invitation for what comes next. The reeds, always cheek by jowl, move in a zealous spiral whether playing untied polyphonies, uncanny unisons, or strolling with no accompaniment. Joy is all around even when Lonberg-Holm brings a slice of solemnity with his cello movements.

If Pt.3 is a sunny day, Pt.2 is a quiet night. The band generates a yearning chamber music that surrounds us with soberer tones. 
Swell’s 18-minute “Composite #10” oozes energy from everywhere and brings Anthony Braxton into mind, not only because of its title but also due to its structure and musical force. The first five minutes are filled with thoughtful spanks, bonks, and chomps of Zerang’s stiff-less drumming. He was just making room for the pugnacious and highly-rhythmic altercation that arrives next, where Swell and Ullmann expel brisk phrases that sometimes match, sometimes diverge. The band reserves a section for the apocalyptic white noise produced by Lonberg-Holm’s electronics.

Packed with excruciating musical venom, “Rule #1” accentuates the quartet’s impeccable sense of tempo. The reedists show off the virile and unorthodox avant-jazz jargon, having Zerang’s punchy rhythms in the background. The electrifying drummer shines once again in “Déjà Vu”, a more restrained tune devised with bouncy folk melodies, cacophonic murmurs, and precious silences.

These four staunch improvisers know how to make us alert, working the dynamics and textures with an impressive gusto. 
It might take a few years for the Ullmann-Swell Quartet reunite again, but until there, we have the creditable The Chicago Plan to rack our brains out.

          Grade  A

          Grade A

Label: Clean Feed, 2016
Favorite Tracks:
01 – Variations on a Master Plan Pt.3 ► 04 – Rule #1 ► 05 – Deja Vu