The Ullmann / Swell 4: News? No News! (2010)
The international partnership of German multi-instrumentalist Gebhard Ullmann and Downtown trombonist Steve Swell dates back to 2004, when they first recorded together as the co-leaders of a quartet on Desert Songs and Other Landscapes (CIMP, 2004)the same year Swell joined Ullmann's renowned Basement Research ensemble. News? No News! is the sophomore follow-up to their CIMP debut, a rare studio date for the German Jazzwerkstatt imprint that captures the vigor of the quartet's live gigs in a transparent studio environment.
Despite the quartet's dual leadership moniker (Ullmann and Swell split writing duties), these four veterans interact with the democratic congeniality of a true collective. Emboldening unpredictable charts with lyrical confidence, Ullmann and Swell's fondness for polyphonic harmonies, abstruse structural detours and dramatic tempo shifts are enriched by the robust and elastic contributions of bassist Hilliard Greene and legendary drummer Barry Altschul.
The thrilling interaction between the co-leaders is a galvanizing force throughout the album. Ullmann's muscular tenor testimonials and vocalized bass clarinet ruminations are matched by Swell's dynamic range, which veers from muted introspection to braying fanfarescomplementing and challenging Ullmann in equal measure. Such energetic exchanges are abetted by Greene and Altschul's virtuosic gamesmanship, which provides a ceaseless forward momentumas compelling through free-roaming improvisations as asymmetrical meters and brisk free-bop runs.
The rousing opener "More Hello" explodes with prismatic fervor, as Ullmann's brash tenor and Swell's boisterous trombone rail over Greene and Altschul's roiling polyrhythmic undercurrent. Cathartic expressionism is only one facet of the group's aesthetic however. The labyrinthine "Composite #1" encapsulates an array of modes and time signatures, integrating spacious aleatoric a cappella horn interludes into a series of pithy abstractions that deconstructs blues forms beyond recognition.
Ullmann's odes to air travel highlight the quartet's skill at interpreting unorthodox narrative structures. They gracefully negotiate fractious rubato rhythms on the portentous, noir-inflected "New York 5:50," while the regal swagger of "Berlin 9:35" finds them modulating from thorny contrapuntal interplay to a stark meditative conclusion. The rhythm section's steady pulse keeps Swell's ebullient "Planet Hopping On A Thursday Afternoon" squarely in the pocket, no matter how far out the front-line goes, and the dramatic title track is a stellar example of the quartet's ability to seamlessly shift from bluesy languor to blistering ardor. Their dynamic reach is further realized on two spontaneous group improvisations, from whispered pointillism on "GPS #1" to jittery discourse on "GPS #2."
News? No News! is a compelling example of creative improvised music informed by a deep respect for the jazz tradition. The quartet's hearty rapport and focused sensibility infuse every moment of this timeless date's expansive vision, making it an early contender for one of the year's best albums.
Track Listing: More Hello; New York 5:50; Composite #1; Kleine Figuren #2; Planet Hopping On A Thursday Afternoon; GPS #1; News? No News!; GPS#2; Berlin 9:35; Airtight.
Personnel: Gebhard Ullmann: tenor saxophone, bass clarinet; Steve Swell: trombone; Hilliard Greene: bass; Barry Altschul: drums.