A key presence on the European jazz scene with nearly forty albums to his credit, German multi-reedist Gebhard Ullman turns fifty this year. In celebration, Ullmann has reformed his critically acclaimed Basement Research ensemble with all new members. New Basement Research, their studio debut, is an effective summation of Ullmann's talents as an improviser and composer.
Initially formed in 1995, Basement Research featured the talents of tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Phil Haynes. The quartet disbanded after recording a self-titled debut (Soul Note, 1995) and Kreuzberg Park East (Soul Note, 2000). Tony Malaby substituted for Eskelin during a European tour in 1999, documented on Basement Research Live in Muenster (Not Two, 2006), before the band went on a five-year hiatus.
An entirely new line-up is featured on New Basement Research. Trombonist Steve Swell, British saxophonist Julian Arguelles, bassist John Hebert and drummer Gerald Cleaver have been working with Ullmann since 2004. Featuring seven classic originals re-arranged for this group, the album provides a casual overview of Ullmann's two decades-plus discography.
Recorded numerous times over the years by a variety of line-ups ranging from clarinet trio to big band, these highly structured compositions are focused and intricate, yet malleable, with ample room for individual interpretation.
Dramatic and compelling, Ullmann's endlessly modulating compositions elevate his soloists' electrifying statements to exhilarating plateaus. Encompassing a variety of techniques, his writing employs tricky contrapuntal horn charts, sudden tempo shifts and unaccompanied cadenzas with masterful allocation.
Referencing tradition, "D. Nee No" uses a tango as the basis for a labyrinthine excursion, while "Dreierlei," "Seven 9-8" and "Almost Twenty-Eight" embrace a stridently modernist sensibility. Careening with roiling energy and insistent momentum, they incorporate abstracted rock and funk rhythms with furious communal expressionism.
For all their terse interweaving lines and collective caterwauling, the three horn front line generally orbits a common tonal center, rarely devolving into meandering chaos. On "Desert ... Bleue ... East," Arguelles sonorous glissandos dovetail seamlessly with Swell's soulful, unhurried slide work and the leader's tart elucidations. Full of soaring lines and lithe figures, they weave a polyphonic tapestry from the fragments of a deconstructed blues.
A stirring soloist with a dark, muscular tone and a virtuosic command of extended techniques, Ullmann alternates between multiphonic bursts, intervallic register leaps and blistering linear runs with surgical precision. He also reveals a lyrical side on "Gospel," unfurling bluesy lines rippling with unfettered emotion.
The dynamic rhythm section of Hebert and Cleaver demonstrate a symbiotic rapport, most notably on the conversational dialogue that opens "New No Ness." Often the eye of the storm, Hebert maintains a beacon of stability in an endlessly fluctuating tempest while Cleaver's scintillating cymbal crashes and pneumatic shuffles yield a jaw-dropping show of force.
A powerful and commanding demonstration of Ullmann's gifts, New Basement Research is one of the year's best albums.
Personnel: Gebhard Ullmann: tenor saxophone and bass clarinet; Julian Arguelles: soprano and baritone saxophones; Steve Swell: trombone; John Hebert: double bass; Gerald Cleaver: drums.