I have to admit to suffering a bit of cognitive dissonance upon listening to David Ullmann
. Ullmann's original compositions, expertly played by an ensemble comprised of Brooklyn's top-drawer modern jazz talent, are ostensibly inspired by television themes from the 70s. For me, 70s television themes evoke gritty, urban sounds full of clavinet, fuzz-wah Rhodes, funky drums, thumping Fender bass, and blues-rock guitar. You know... like Mannix
, Streets of San Francisco
, Barney Miller
, Sanford and Son
, and... well... you get the picture. Anyway, that's what I was watching. So, I dug into Corduroy
(a fabric that Ullmann inexplicably associates with the decade as well) expecting the same sorts of sounds. As it turns out Ullmann is dealing with a completely different vibe, albeit one that legitimately originates in the 1970s. But it isn't the sort of thing I associate with the decade. Not that there's anything wrong with that. At least the theme from Dallas
was not his jumping-off point.
Ullmann's prototypes are, instead, the mellow, proto- smooth jazz sounds of the themes from M. A. S. H.
. Once I could wrap my brain around that, I had an easier time with Corduroy
, which is a fine set of lovingly crafted tunes. Far from evoking TV themes or nostalgia, the overall sound of Ullmann's compositions and arrangements falls quite close to the "little big band" sounds of the Either/Orchestra
or Carla Bley
's Heavy Heart
(ECM Records, 1984) and Sextet
(ECM Records, 1987) albums. Ullmann's music is easy-flowing, tasteful and tuneful, not overly complex, not overtly "cutting-edge," rhythmically oriented towards backbeats and latin-esque rhythms. Drummer Vinnie Sperrazza
's light touch is ideal for this stuff. If there's a problem to be had with Corduroy
, it would be the lack of variation between the tracks. As a result, a sort of blandness creeps into some of the pieces. Fortunately, Ullmann gathered a stunningly talented group of musicians to play on this album. It's their solos-and Ullmann's-that keep the music from receding into the background.
Ullmann is an excellent guitarist who plays with a pure, classic jazz guitar tone (á la Jim Hall
, Tal Farlow
, Joe Pass
, et al.), he demonstrates a deft hand as arranger and composer of the eight originals that comprise Corduroy
. "Ocelot" is perhaps the album's most adventurous piece. Buoyed by Mike McGinniss' agile bass clarinet and some pleasantly bubbling African- inspired 6/8 rhythm, it nods gently towards the work of Fela Kuti
(and perhaps contemporary groups such as Antibalas
). Sperrazza, Brian Drye
and Kirk Knuffke
really shine here, as well. With its lovely descending theme and heartfelt guitar and saxophone solos, "Something You Said" would have been way too distracting (this is a good thing!) to make its way on to a TV show; now or 40 years ago. "You Can't Go Back" and "Champ" would likely have been added to Hollywood's reject pile as well. The former, a stately and somewhat resigned ballad, projects emotions that are just too deep for TV viewers. The nervous and somewhat screwy jazz of "Champ" is just too highbrow for TV. On the other hand, "Papaya" could have been the theme for a light comedy; a spinoff from Three's Company
, perhaps? Corduroy
is a sunny, friendly sort of album that doesn't so much challenge the listener as coax a smile and a tapping foot. The improvisations of Drye, Knuffke, McGinnis, Chris Dingman
, Loren Stillman
, and Ullman himself provide most of the fireworks.
The Chase; Corduroy; Ocelot; Champ; Something You Said; You Can't Go
Back; Papaya; Moving On.
David Ullmann: guitar; Kirk Knuffke: cornet; Brian Drye: trombone;
McGinnis: clarinet and bass clarinet; Loren Stillman alto saxophone;
Chris Dingman: vibraphone; Gary Wang: bass; Vinnie Sperrazza: drums.