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An improvisational master marks his 65th birthday with three disparate releases.
Powerful and protean, the German reedman Gebhard Ullmann brings a hardwood tone to his tenor sax, a birchy dryness to his bass clarinet and a willowy strength to his B-flat clarinet. Among the most prolific modern improvisers, Ullmann built his reputation primarily on the plinths of two bands — the quartet Conference Call (now 20 years old) and Basement Research, which he founded in 1993. But he has many others, and he has drawn on three of them, spanning the musical map, to celebrate his 65th birthday this past November. (Indicative of Ullmann’s collaborative nature, none of these bands brandish his name on the marquee.)
For New Zealand (Not Two) really does trot the globe. Memorializing the 2019 mosque massacre in Christchurch, it is the second album from The Chicago Plan, named for the presence of two distinctive residents of Chicago’s vivid, influential new-music hothouse — the slyly seductive Michael Zerang (drums) and the ever-inventive Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello and electronics). Rounding out the quartet, New York trombonist Steve Swell (a co-founder of Basement Research) shares composing credits with Ullmann and, as usual, combines ballsy exploration with soulful lyricism.
“Composite 13” starts with an inchoate mass, galvanized by Lonberg-Holm’s use of amplified noise, before transiting to a hard-grooving vamp for the horn solos. “Sketch 6” brims with exhilarating improv, all of it held together by Zerang’s ability to join the scrum while maintaining a strong pulse. But don’t pigeonhole this as an exercise in unregulated spontaneity. Each track steps into or leaps from a solid compositional structure, and this strategy brings depth to ensemble passages as well as the improvisations. “Yoyo” starts with a front-and-center obbligato from the horns before instigating a ferocious free jam. And after Ullmann’s rangy bass clarinet cadenza, “Welcome to the Red Island” emerges as a nearly through-composed, quite stately processional led by Swell (who channels Ellington ballads in his solo).
Electronics play a considerably larger role in Andere Planeten (WhyPlayJazz), the third album from Das Kondensat (The Condensate), who spent nearly a decade boiling down a host of ingredients before releasing their first disc in 2017. Ullmann formed the band, with bassist Oliver Potratz and drummer Eric Schaefer, “[to bring] live electronics into improvisation without changing the flow of the music.” At the start of his career, Ullmann had embraced synths along with fusion and prog rock; this trio brings him full circle.
Andere Planeten adds keyboardist Liz Kosack to create a larger sonic profile, which helps evoke the music of Weather Report. Tracks such as “25 Rotations Later” and especially “Impromptu #4” — with Ullmann’s processed tenor lines accompanied by effective electronic bleeps and bloops — recall early WR recordings such as Mysterious Traveler. (Andere Planeten translates as “Other Planets.”) But Ullmann also cites King Crimson, Soft Machine and “krautrock” bands Can and Amon Düül among the influences here. The delightful “and She Knew that I Was not from LLPegasi” (referencing an enigmatic distant galaxy) exemplifies Ullmann’s goal of balancing free improv with a futuristic palette.
The Clarinet Trio inhabits a different neighborhood entirely. Now in its 25th year, this Berlin-based band rejects the instrument-switching that often characterizes all-reed units: Ullmann sticks to bass clarinet, with Jürgen Kupke on soprano clarinet and Michael Thieke heard primarily on the rarely used alto clarinet. But the wide variety of the material, and the ingenuity of the players, prevents this concretized instrumentation from growing stale.
Repertoire from outside the group dominates Transformations and Further Passages (Leo), their sixth album. It includes compositions by Joachim Kühn, Manfred Schoof, and one by postwar saxophonist Joki Freund (“Cleopatra”) that starts as a swing-band bounce before the lines separate — the tune winds down like a wobbling top. “Theme From Vietnam,” one of three pieces written by Albert Mangelsdorff, wafts in on a chorale of widely spaced, sometimes dissonant clarinet chords, then moves from ballad to dance. And the trio displays its wit on “Get Up — From Now On,” one of two Karl Berger compositions, which sounds as if Raymond Scott had gotten hold of the ’50s pop hit “Goody, Goody.”
Given his energy and eclecticism, you wouldn’t blink at Ullmann’s decision to celebrate his 65th birthday with as many as three recordings. The real question: How did he manage to keep the number that low? - Neil Tesser