Gebhard Ullmann, a musical gypsy, has been active in both Berlin and New York for twenty years now. His musical life has been documented on a series of projects, recorded both live and in the studio, where he has played virtually all of the reeds and quite a few flutes. Essencia
is another entry in his growing discography that represents his always expanding musical universe.
After meeting pianist Jens Thomas in Berlin, Ullmann formed a duo with him, but it quickly became a trio with the addition of bassist Carlos Bica. The recording project that resulted is a delicate, yet very intense collection of tracks with composed pieces by Bica and Ullmann and pieces improvised by the group. This project, recorded in 1999 and originally released in 2001 on Between the Lines, was reissued in 2005 and distributed by Challenge Records.
The album is on the soft side, benefiting from a quiet room and a relaxed but concentrated mindset. Many small gestures and musical details link together to build grand structures, and the absence of percussion only intensifies the emotions. The musicians sound naked and exposed, creating a feeling of sparseness in which there is nothing extra, nothing to break the intensity, nothing to add a flaw to each gem-like piece.
They act with a single mind, although each one has a strong personality. The fact that Bica was given the "featuring" billing on an Ullmann project is no accident. He is an exceptionally strong player and composer. The pieces credited to him alone, "O Profeta II," "Planicies" and "Simple Melody," have a dark mystery tempered by an optimism that comes from the directness and beauty of the melody. The flow of Essencia
as an album is governed by the placement of his compositions.
Although he plays on every track, Ullmann has only one compositional credit. "Gospel," which starts off with a surprisingly bluesy sax line, finds the band sounding as if it is going to break out into a gospel shout. After those initial hints at blues and gospel, the mood quickly changes to something which has no seeming relation to the opening.
Thomas' contributions are not to be overlooked. He is everywhere, most of the time playing a supporting role, occasionally pushing to the front. Many times Thomas surrounds the others' lines with a delicate yet strong envelope.
The rest of the tracks are group improvisations that have such a strong feeling of organic development that they seem to defy the term "improvised." The two "Essencias" are starkly beautiful, with profundity and heart-wrenching intensity.
This music cannot really be labeled. While the emotional shifts from moment to moment might seem surprising, there is a feeling of inevitability at the end of each track, and ultimately the whole album. Highly recommended.