The Double Life of Gebhard Ullmann

The Double Life of Gebhard Ullmann

by Alain Drouot

copyright © 2002 Alain Drouot

Cliches about Germany abound. Among those, organization and efficiency rank at the top. In the case of German reeds and woodwinds player Gebhard Ullmann, they fit him to a tee. And without those qualities, he would certainly not be able to juggle projects on both sides of the Atlantic -- namely in Berlin and New York.

Ullmann's interest for the US came through his long-time collaborator and fellow countryman, guitarist Andreas Willers, who, in the early '80s, came to Canada for a workshop and met Phil Haynes. He would later introduce the drummer to Ullmann, and Haynes subsequently ended up being part of a currently dormant quartet, which in the past has also included Drew Gress and Ellery Eskelin. They recorded two CDs for Soul Note.

"I composed the music of the first CD Basement Research in Berlin while the compositions featured on Kreuzberg Park East were written in Brooklyn and reflect trends, situations and memories from the two cities w here I live," he says. Ullmann is very sensitive to his environment and his personal experiences always find an echo in his music. "My influences are my travels, colors and situations, noises I hear during my travels, the different projects I've been involved in previous years, among other things," he claims.

The past year has seen the release of his first two recordings featuring a piano -- a major step in Ullmann's musical development. Although he has performed with pianists in the past -- mostly local gigs in Berlin as well as a stint with Paul Bley -- he has struggled for a long time finding a concept that could incorporate that instrument.

"Piano has everything in its hands but I favor pianists who leave off some of that, so that the listener could use [one's] imagination and make [one's] own associations," he says. In fact, Ullmann's reluctance to use a piano lied in his fear of being asphyxiated and not having enough space.

It is worth noting that this new phase keeps reflecting his transatlantic life. On one side is Essencia, the European trio now featuring Sylvie Courvoisier on the keys and Carlos Bica on bass. The small combo conveys a chamber-like sonority and a typically continental cerebral quality. "In this project the quintessential point is to present myself as a player and improvisor," Ullmann says.

On the other side is Conference Call, a quartet comprised of Michael Jefry Stevens on piano, Joe Fonda on bass, Matt Wilson, Han Bennink or, as on their recent US tour, George Schuller on drums. By contrast, their first recording Final Answer, released by Soul Note in September, is more rooted into jazz and leans toward the angularity that characterized Eric Dolphy's music. The CD features Matt Wilson on drums and a live recording with Han Bennink is scheduled for release some time next year. "Matt and Han are two completely drummers and as the drummer changes, the music changes," says the reedist. Fortunately, Ullmann has in Joe Fonda and Michael Jefry Stevens two of the most seasoned and versatile musicians in the New York circuit who can blend in and adapt to each drummer's style.

Gebhard Ullmann is also a very focused musician and composer approaching each project with a very clear vision. "Obviously these ideas may change at the contact of the musicians or because of events affecting my life," he recognizes. In any case, he always dives into a project with the objective of exploring all its facets and moves on once the goal has been reached. Right now, he continues to study all the possibilities (colors, tonalities, etc.) offered by the bass clarinet with his Clarinet Trio -- their second opus Translucent Tones (Leo Records) was released earlier this year. Either playing originals or delving into the music of Erik Satie or Nino Rota, the composer of most of Federico Fellini's film soundtracks, a European sensibility definitely emanates from the trio.

The various projects Ullmann runs at the time result in a busy schedule -- not the least of perks for a jazz musician. It seems that something new is constantly happening: "I have also just finished my BigBand Project with the NDR BigBand plus guests and myself as soloist performing my compositions arranged by Andy Emler, Satoko Fujii, Chris Dahlgren, and Guenter Lenz."

In the past two decades an increasing number of European musicians have found ways to make a comfortable living without having to break in the US market. Tough US regulations and the hassle of getting a work permit have created a lot of frustration and anger among foreign artists. Despite this situation, Gebhard Ullmann has spent a lot of efforts and money to present his music here.

"I always try to bring my music to the people wherever they are," asserts Ullmann. When he played the Knitting Factory for the first time, only five persons were in attendance. Far from being discouraged, the German reedist viewed it as a starting point to cultivate and to develop.

From Ullmann's experience, we learn that presenting music is a struggle on both sides of the Atlantic whether it is New York, Berlin or another place. For instance, "Paris is very hard to get to [for a musician] from Berlin," he says. According to him, the main difference lies in the setting, with Berlin offering more spaces strictly devoted to listening as opposed to New York where musicians have sometimes to deal with the tinting of glasses as well as the clinking of forks and knives, not to mention loud conversations.

Amid the challenges created by various musical and geographical contexts, Ullmann would not succeed without his good nature and positive attitude as a recent visit to Chicago bears witness. When the club he was initially set to perform at shamelessly withdrew its conditions, he overcame adversity with the help of local promoters and found a five-day engagement at the Heartland Cafe where he played some convincing sets with some AACM musicians such as Hamid Drake and Ernest Dawkins. After the New York "line" and the Berlin "line" -- to use his own term -- we can only hope for a Chicago "line."


JJA member Alain Drouot has a regular radio show on Northwestern University's WNUR-FM, out of Evanston, Illinois.


C o m m e n t s

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Check out (and like) a review of The Clarinet Trio's "Oct.1,'98": http://culturecatch.com/music/leo-records-gebhard-ullmann

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