Clearly one of European Jazz's new masters (to me, anyway), Gebhard Ullmann (bass clarinet, tenor, and soprano sax) is here being promoted by Soul Note Records on this big band date as a talent worth watching from this side of the Atlantic. And he very much is that. Let's remember how Soul Note has released a few Dave Douglas recordings, so there's evidence of the label's excellent taste.
Even more stacking of the deck occurs in Steve Holtje's smart, no-BS liner notes, just in case we didn't notice the expansive approach used by Chris Dahlgren and Satoko Fuji of an all-Ullmann set of compositions written over the last ten years or so. This is the kind of showcase Frank Zappa used to have to give himself! But it all works, because Gebhard Ullmann is as good at what he does as his band, his arrangers, and the final product.
"Blaues Lied," a blues of the sort Mingus used to write, conjures a concourse of swaggering trumpets and saxes, slow-walking bass, varying tempos, in/out sonorities with a smatter of twentieth-century serialist wingding. It has it all. And when Ullmann opens up on bass clarinet after the first major tempo change, pianist Vlad Sendecki and the horns cushioning him all the way, you hear what this entire project denotes as much as it connotes. The barriers are down, whether the scribes want them to be or not.
Check out the hectored tango, part way through "D. Nee No" and how the horns slowly overwhelm it, making way for a notable electric guitar statement by Stephen Dietz. Just one example of dozens, many of which are hummable in the shower.
So, about those barriers. It didn't start when Louis Armstrong first heard bebop and dubbed it "Chinese music." In fact I don't know when it did, but as Jazz moved away from the American South and into the urban centers and then the concert halls (it's hard to remember the consternation in some living rooms and press rooms when Miles Davis played Carnegie Hall for the first time) people who did not want the music to change started saying "That's not Jazz."
What is Jazz anyway? I'd say, read Nat Hentoff's dandy book Jazz Is to get an idea. I'm just my opinions, no more. But I do say that when Mingus came along and expanded the Ellington vocabulary to include free playing, hypervoicing, and multiple solos during the same time space (initially a Dixieland trick, I believe), he set down the building blocks for the situation as shown on The Big Band Project.
Sun Ra helped out too, naturally, having equal facility in his wacko interstellar arranging and the charts he used to write for Fletcher Henderson. And there have been others, Dave Douglas among them.
As Holtje puts it in his liner notes, we now have a post-everything world. The good or great player certainly needs not be conversant in a large number of Jazz disciplines, but there is and has been a lot of credence given the musician who can navigate among the soundworlds of free playing, highly arranged large-group, European serialist Jazz, bebop, you name it.
Ullmann can clearly do that, as on his varying axes he moves into tuneful passages, wigouts, and those spaces between, all with equal facility and gusto. He not only plays his butt off on his various instruments with seeming access to far more ears than God gave him, but he also does us all a service in reminding us yet again that all those barriers I mentioned between various forms of in and out are highly puncturable and should have been knocked down long ago.
Elsewhere we get the sax/clarinet surrealist fanfare opening "Ta Lam" (which also includes a neat dialogue/recitative for Ullmann on bass clarinet and Julian Arguelles's baritone sax), the cathedral-like space implied by the slow medley "Fourteen Days/Cafe Toronto," and the oft-interrupted flute duet by Fiete Felsch and Lutz Buchner, which carries more than a whiff of Webern with it.
Standouts here include the two arrangers already mentioned along with Andy Emler and Guenter Lenz, bassist Lucas Lindholm, and conductor Dieter Glawischnig.
I should mention that this orchestra was not assembled for this project but is actually the NDR Big Band, an existing unit which, if they have any CDs out on their own, I want to know. Somebody e-mail me!
I may seem to have been a bit hard on Soul Note Records earlier in this review, but yeah, I do see a certain star treatment going on; for example, Ullmann solos first on each of the six compositions here. But he did write them all, it is his show, and he deserves every minute of it.
If you are any student or open-eared devotee of Jazz of the sort that will bring the music forward (because what's the point of it if it doesn't) get this.
By Ken Egbert