Gebhard Ullmann and Theo Nabicht: Clarinets plus Basses
Back in 1999, Leo Records released the debut album, Oct. 1 '98, by The Clarinet Trio, which consisted of three German clarinettists, Jürgen Kupke on clarinet plus Gebhard Ullmann and Theo Nabicht both on bass clarinets. The three had contrasting interests and styles: Kupke had been performing from contemporary to New Orleans-type music, Nabicht focused on contemporary composed and improvised music and wrote music for theatre, while Ullmann had been composing and performing in the large field of what he thought jazz was. In 2002, Leo released a second album, Translucent Tones, by the same threesome. However, by the time of The Clarinet Trio's third release, Ballads and Related Objects, in 2004, Michael Thieke (also of The International Nothing and The Magic I.D.) on alto clarinet and clarinet had replaced Nabicht. Now, coinciding with the release on Leo of The Clarinet Trio's 4 come two albums with similar concepts, one from Ullmann's BassX3 trio, and the other from the duo of Nabicht with bassist Werner Dafeldecker.
The Clarinet Trio
Ullmann is unmistakably the leader of The Clarinet Trio. Of the album's eleven tracks, all are by him except "Homogenous Emotions" by Ornette Coleman and "Collectives # 13 #14" by Kupke, Thieke and Ullmann together. Despite his domination of the writing credits, the bass clarinetist does not dominate the ensemble to the same extent; while he underpins the trio's sound impressively, he allows Kupke and Thiele plenty of space in which to play individually and together. All three players show their ability to play separate lines yet to weave their way around each otheron "Blaues Viertel" a credit to Ullmann's skill in writing interlocking parts, and on "Collectives # 13 #14" to the very different improvising skills of the three individuals which highlight their different backgrounds and interests while reflecting their years playing together.
Any listeners for whom the clarinet still retains associations with chamber-jazz are likely to be surprised and delighted by the jaunty, upbeat nature of much of the music on 4, as typified by the bright, melodic opener "May 52," by the upbeat interpretation of the Coleman composition and the uplifting "News? No News!"
Admirers of The Clarinet Trio's past albums will find just as much to enjoy here as before. New listeners can start here with confidence.
Leaving aside his other ensembles, it is a credit to Gebhard Ullmann that The Clarinet Trio and BassX3 can be so different and so successful.
Transatlantic, the second release by BassX3, after their eponymous debut on Drimala in 2005, retains Ullmann as leader, now playing bass flute in addition to bass clarinet, plus Chris Dahlgren on double bass, but compared to that debut, Clayton Thomas replaces Peter Herbert as the second double bassist. The trio retains its unique instrumentation and focus, with low-end frequencies dominating the album.
"Transatlantic" itself is a composition in three parts which are located at the beginning, middle and end of the album, forming its spine and giving it a common theme. On all three, Dahlgren and Thomas maintain a sustained bowed drone, creating a dark brooding mood and laying down a solid foundation. Over this, Ullmann blows a selection of breathy sounds as well as soaring melodic phrases, his bass clarinet sounding high-toned in contrast to the ominous backdrop. The total effect is mesmerizing.
"The Epic" is the album's second longest track at nearly twelve minutes. Appropriately named, it is an episodic musical voyage that integrates diverse elements into a satisfying whole. Towards its end, rather than matching each other, the basses play independent lines and interweave in a stunning duo that promises much but ends too soon. "The Epic" could be expanded into an album in its own right.
The focus of the album remains on the ensemble, with Ullmann integrated into it instead of being its front man. On "The No Piece," he plays bass flute and, instead of soloing, engages in a call-and-response dialogue with the basses. In addition to their basses, Dahlgren says their instruments are very often prepared with an assortment of common household items to create very unusual sounds which can surprise the listener; this is borne out by occasional percussive rattlings and vibrations that can derive from no other source.
Transatlantic is an album on which every track is almost perfect, making it difficult to talk of any one being "best." Nevertheless, the two-part "Berlin is Full of Lonely People" has a mournfully affecting theme and atmosphere that make it the most beautiful track of a beautiful album.
Werner Dafeldecker and Theo Nabicht
Although they had played together in various contexts since the 1980s, double bassist Werner Dafeldecker and bass clarinetist Theo Nabicht only began playing together as a duo in spring 2010, recording Vessels in Berlin, that August. Its nine parts are mainly short (longest seven minutes, shortest three) with a total running time of thirty nine and a half minutes. The pieces were worked out in rehearsal and combine composition and improvisation; each one is coherent in its own right but, running continuously, they fit together into a satisfying whole.
As BassX3 demonstrates, the combination of bass and bass clarinet easily lends itself to explorations of the lower frequencies. Dafeldecker and Nabicht take advantage of that on "Vessels IV," both sustaining their lowest notes throughout it, creating an atmospheric, menacing pieceone that would not sound out of place on Transatlantic. Elsewhere, though, one goes low to act as a contrast, or they both go higher together. So, Nabicht often opts to generate breathy sounds where he does not vibrate his reed and we hear the high pitched sound of air whistling through his instrument combined with the percussive clatter of keys and pads. Dafeldecker more often provides the bass sounds that underpin the duo, but he extracts higher sounds from his instrument by banging and scratching its surface or exciting its strings by scraping longitudinally.
Altogether, the album's music extends way beyond the soundscape that would be expected from the two instruments, making for a unique and pleasingly rounded listening experience.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: May 5; Blaues Viertel; Collectives #13 #14; Homogenous Emotions; Catwalk Münzstrasse; Waters; Kleine Figuren # 1; News? No News!; Geringe Abweichungen von der Norm; Kleine Figuren # 1 (Variation); Kleine Figuren #2.
Personnel: Jürgen Kupke: clarinet; Michael Thieke: alto clarinet, clarinet; Gebhard Ullmann: bass clarinet.
Tracks: Transatlantic (Part One); The Thing; The No Piece; The Epic; Transatlantic (Part Two); Ornette's Closet; Berlin is Full of Lonely People (Part One); Berlin is Full of Lonely People (Part Two); Transatlantic (Part Three).
Personnel: Gebhard Ullmann: bass clarinet, bass flute; Chris Dahlgren: double bass, objects; Clayton Thomas: double bass, objects.
Tracks: Vessels I; Vessels II; Vessels III; Vessels IV; Vessels V; Vessels VI; Vessels VII; Vessels VIII; Vessels IX.
Personnel: Theo Nabicht: bass clarinet; Werner Dafeldecker: double bass.