Gebhard Ullman-Steve Swell Quartet: Desert Songs & Other Landscapes (2004)
Economical improv groups are CIMP's stock and trade. Rare are the sessions that employ ensembles larger than quartet size. For this reason critics often complain of a relative homogeneity amongst the label's roster of projects. The responsibility falls on tapped bands to say something fresh within instrumental formats that quite often have reams of precedence. Producer Bob Rusch has an uncanny knack of picking groups able to rise to the challenge.
The jointly officiated Ullman-Swell unit certainly contains the improvisatory clout to shoulder the task. Ullman's horns favor a dryly sardonic and occasionally ornery phrasing that mesh well with the arid imagery of the disc's title. His bass clarinet displays few Dolphy traits, though his tenor carries a bulky Shepp-styled rasp that works particularly well on the few balladic interludes. Both reeds are ideally suited the sections of unfettered blowing that regularly arrive as tags to the composed sections.
Swell adopts a comparably roughhewn disposition, his friction-flecked brass sounding like a sheet of corrugated aluminum buckling in a typhoon wind. Unamplified, Hill Greene slips in and out of audibility during the more raucous ensemble sections. As such he ends up shaping more of a recurring pulse than clearly discernable lines. One of his few reprieves comes when the others leave him to his lonesome during a pizzicato prologue to "Under the Other." The skill imbued in the solo makes the shrouding of his patterns elsewhere all the more luckless. Altschul draws on the masterful yield of nearly a half century behind the drum kit, crafting off-kilter patterns that keep the band centered while they simultaneously ensure maximum diversity of rhythm.
The disc's six pieces offer a tightly-stitched fabric of improvisation and composition, opening with the Swell-scripted "Box Set." Tracing overlapping combative phrases over a clattery percussive backdrop, the horns eventually settle upon a joint course. Greene and Alstchul converge to provide sprinting undercarriage for solos from the dual leads. Altschul's tidal statement that serves as capstone is the first of several show-stopping stomps. "Flutist With Hat And Shoe" keeps the bar raised with a solitary extemporization by Ullman's plush tenor, which wobbles and exhorts with a weary lust-laden purr. The addition of Swell's moribund brass in full funeral mode flanked by peripatetic brushes of the drummer completes the picture. Ullman isn't content to stick to a single reed for the entirety of most pieces, and his whim-driven change ups add a welcome sense of unpredictability.
The music isn't undemanding listening by any stretch, but readers familiar with these players likely won't expect anything less. When it comes to coarse and uncompromising energy-fueled free jazz, these four deliver the goods. In the bargain they stay true the often-derided CIMP statement of purpose of providing uncompromising creative expression free from the mitigating shackles of commercialism.
Track Listing: Box Set/ Flutist With Hat And Shoe/ Seven 9-8/ Camel's Gait/Desert Sands Part 1/ Under The Other/ Desert
Personnel: Gebhard Ullman- tenor saxophone & bass clarinet; Steve Swell- trombone; Hilliard Greene- bass; Barry Altschul- drums. Recorded: June 22 & 23, 2004, Rossie, NY.