Meet Saxhophonist/Clarinetist Gebhard Ullmann

Glenn Astarita BY

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Naturally, I can only judge the differences between the types of musicians from both sides of the Atlantic in my own projects... I think it is less important where a musician comes from as opposed to whether or not he or she also is a composer.
Submitted by Glenn Astarta on behalf of Vittorio Lo Conte for AAJ:Italy.

All About Jazz: Regarding your CD Kreuzberg Park East - Will you keep developing your musical ideas with this group in the future?

Gebhard Ullmann: The CD Kreuzberg Park East was an advancement of my composition concept for quartet (two horns and piano-less rhythm section). While I composed all the music for the first CD Basement Research in Berlin, everything on Kreuzberg Park East are new compositions and arrangements I wrote in Brooklyn. The recording took place in NYC following a European tour, so that the band could explore additional free spaces inside the arrangements while on tour. With regard to those free spaces, there are flowing transitions between composed and improvised passages in many of my compositions. Based upon the strength and aesthetics of the composed sections, I confidently and gladly leave many free spaces to the performing musicians, whose contributions I may later take in and transform into new compositions or arrangements of the pieces. In this case I could write additionally for specific musicians, which gave part of the direction for me as a composer. On the other hand I also like to lead the players to new musical frontiers.

On Kreuzberg Park East I completely describe determined tendencies, situations, and memories from the two cities in which I live: NYC and Berlin. For example, the title piece is the description of one Sunday afternoon in the park opposite my former apartment in Berlin. "The T.T. Walk" is inspired by a journey to Trinidad and Tobago. "Almost Twenty Eight" is a description of different simultaneous impressions from NYC. "Blaues Lied" ("Blue Song") is my nod to the blue musical tradition. This colour again emerges with "Blue Trees and Related Objects" from the tradition of painting. "Flutist With Hat and Shoe" is the description of a picture and "Meltema" is another dear song which is quite personal.

New music and compositional concepts emerged during the writing of the music too. These centered around investigating the interactive aspects of sound between bass clarinet and double bass and also between Eskelin's and my tenor saxophones. It also occurred from using the highly intuitive rhythm work of Drew Gress and Phil Haynes and in exploring new notation/composition techniques in transatlantic musical idioms such as Blues/Gospel, Waltz, or Tango.

AAJ: You perform in Germany with Guenter Lenz' "Springtime". Since Bob Degen returned to the USA, which are the perspectives of this group? Do you find that the music you perform with European and US musicians does go in different directions?

GE: The "Guenter Lenz Springtime" is an interesting group which spans styles, generations and geographical regions. Dieter Glawischnig has taken over the piano chair of Bob Degen. Guenter wrote new music for this occasion, which was already recorded during a concert in May.

Naturally, I can only judge the differences between the types of musicians from both sides of the Atlantic in my own projects. For me, my compositions have always been very important, on the other hand I also feel comfortable in open concepts with a minimum of arrangements. I think it is less important where a musician comes from as opposed to whether or not he or she also is a composer.

One example: I very deliberately contrast the quartet "Conference Call" (with Michael Stevens, Joe Fonda, Matt Wilson) to the Trio with Carlo Bica and Sylvie Courvoisier. In addition, Conference Call undertook a tour with Han Bennink this year. Although there maybe boundaries they fade away more and more.

If it comes to the musicians maybe the main difference is their reference to different traditions and their free sometimes wild handling of the given material as being contrary to compositional concepts. However, one must clearly state that many exceptions to the rule are acknowledged. I feel at home both here and there (geographically and musically) and would like to explore both in my own ways.

The trio format: After operating intensively for several years with my ten-piece woodwind/accordion project "Ta Lam Zehn" I began a set of projects which placed a number of different trios into the focal point. In these projects spontaneity is maximized and the presentation of myself as a player and improviser is the quintessential point. After the CD Clarinet Trio (LeoLab 058), the trio of Ullmann/Bica/Thomas released the CD Essencia in June 2001 on Between The Lines. In Autumn 2000 there was a recording with Chris Dahlgren and Peter Herbert (both double bass) and myself on bass flute and bass clarinet called "Bassx3" which still is an ongoing project. Also, I'm working in a trio with Chris Dahlgren (bass, electronics) and Jay Rosen (percussion). All of these projects develop from a pool of ideas and musicians and are quite "transatlantic."

AAJ: How do you view the music today that you have recorded in the past? Is there something which you today think should have been done differently?

GE: No, everything had its proper place and was an important part of my development (although if certain projects were undertaken today they would sound very different). For me, the most important aspects are how previous projects have contributed to my current music and that I see a clear development, even though I would not record certain projects today the way I did. It all moves forward.

AAJ: What is your philosophy towards standards and mainstream? Will you do something in this direction in the future? There are many who came form Bop and successfully developed a modern style. It seems not always to work the other way.

GE: I recorded the CD Per Dee Doo in 1989 (the name was the program) and performed many concerts with this quartet into the early nineties. Since then I have repeatedly included "standards" in my repertoire (but in my opinion "standards" don't necessarily have to come from Broadway nor do they have to arise from within the jazz tradition). With this notion, I have recently turned towards European composers, for instance Nino Rota or Kurt Weill.

However, I have enough music inside me and also have the feeling that within the jazz area too many CDs in the way of XY plays the music of ... are being produced. I do not want to go into a specific CD but do think that the principal reason for a lot of those "concept" albums is more situated in marketing and less in music. Additionally I think that a musician's own music would often be more intense - or - some may at this present time not hear it in themselves, maybe not have the strong concept or simply have released too rapidly too many CDs.

AAJ: I do not believe the problem are the composers, but the fact that the musicians play the old compositions out a fake book , because it is simple to do, because they are used to it, because they are not talented enough to build a career in classical music and try their luck in jazz but have no conception of jazz. If Braxton and M.R. Abrams play Miss Ann in "Duets '76" it is ingenious, but played from a fake book it is ridiculous. Do you agree?

GE: Naturally ingenious and thus necessary new interpretations will always occur. I only meant to say that there has recently been a rising tide of such recordings, which perhaps arise more from the idea of a producer than from the genuine need of the musicians. Sometimes however - and of course - ingenious music will develop from these situations. However it presupposes an equal balance between a musician's need and accompanying deeper understanding of the material in addition to a personal insight. In each case the intensity should be at least as high as to their own musical language and something should be added which has not been said beforehand. I would not like to cite specific examples and to leave it as my general impression. I also think everybody knows what I am talking about.

AAJ: What appeals to you in the music of Nino Rota? Did you see the films of Fellini?

GE: I was always a film fan and also listened in depth to a lot of music that has been composed for the actual movies. Nino Rota is a composer whom I always admired in this regard very much. I love his melodies, which he at the same time already abstracted every now and then within the composition or put different levels beneath them. And naturally I saw the movies of Fellini many times.

AAJ: Do you have the feeling that your colleagues record too much, without always having the highest inspiration for their work or can it be said that routine plays a large role?

GE: I cannot speak for colleagues particularly since the differences are enormous. Nevertheless, I have the feeling that not everything that is being released on CD today absolutely had to be out there. A substantial problem seems to be that it is getting increasingly difficult to find the really interesting music partly because the possibilities to get information in the print media or radio are vanishing more and more. Myself I always try to follow up new ideas and very often have many different ongoing musical projects, which while I develop them often operate in parallel. Mostly up to one point, at which they become complete and at which I then begin something new.

AAJ: Is there a producer with whom you prefer to collaborate? Why?

GE: I have in the course of the time learned to produce my music and have an exact conception of how it should sound, which is why I have operated for a long time without producers.

AAJ: Joachim Kuhn recorded with Ornette, if it was possible would you do it also? Would you say that an interesting and creative co-operation maybe difficult because of big names?

GE: I had the opportunity to work with some of the big ones and every time found it very inspiring. To name two: Paul Bley and Enrico Rava. However, sometimes it is difficult to develop an ongoing co-operation - e.g. because of organizational problems- plus reviewers often only notice the "star" and not the music behind it. Since I would not like to be eternally considered as a "young talent" and since it is essential to me to work on a continuous musical development in my recordings I would rather avoid such a co-operation at this time.

AAJ: Jazz in Germany, in the USA and Europe, what is it you would like to say about it?

GE: That is a common question which can hardly be answered in general. I really dig the new Berlin scene these days moving forward in all kinds of different directions. At the same time I enjoy very much to work with musicians from New York City. I always felt very connected with their aesthetics and intensity as well as the intensive search for "new sound, own sound" (that's here and there) The New York sound aesthetics does work great with my quartet music. The more orchestral "European" projects however I like to record in Berlin. In short: the world grows together in this field as well. There are as many great musicians here and there but more different cities in Europe they live in.

AAJ: In the meantime you released your new CD on Between the lines. Can you tell us something about it? How did it all start?

GE: These days all kinds of artists are moving to Berlin. So did Jens Thomas. When he hit the Berlin scene the duo in which we had met soon became a trio with Carlos Bica (they had played together before and I always wanted to do something with Carlos) Soon I got the feeling we should record the timbre of this trio. The translation of a variety of musical idioms into a language of one's own, the free and open approach to existing material, and the background of all three as improvisers AND composers are the cornerstones to the CD Essencia. This album is part of my ongoing series of trios described earlier. Added to this series now also is the work-in-progress project "Transitional Erasers" with Herb Robertson and Frank Moebus. "Essencia" also is the start of the trio with the same name featuring Carlos Bica (Lisbon/Berlin), Sylvie Courvoisier (New York/Lausanne) and myself (Brooklyn/Berlin). To me the geographical background seems to be quite remarkable as well.

AAJ: Is there a special reason for your work in trios? Would you also perform with an orchestra or solo?

GE: I always had a large musical interest in the trio format since it is an open concept, e.g. without bassist which for a bass clarinetist can be very interesting ("Trad Corrosion" with A. Willers, P. Haynes) but also the "opposite" with two bassists ("Bassx3" with P. Herbert and C. Dahlgren). On the other hand harmonic, rhythmic and melodic components are still presentable at the same time. For example, there was a co-operation with Andreas Willers and Lauren Newton in the eighties...

As far as large ensembles are concerned it was with great pleasure that this year I planned for a number of my works to be arranged for big band (for which I asked Satoko Fujii, Andy Emler, Chris Dahlgren and Guenter Lenz) and to be recorded with the NDR Big Band and myself as a soloist in February 2001.

My "solo project" was the recording of the first Tá Lam CD in 1991. However I must admit that I am presently thinking about a renewed solo project. It is very slowly growing on me though. For me each project is a type of compositional and conceptual challenge which I like to confront myself with - even if sometimes it does not work out 100% immediately. Maybe this is one principle of my musical work: to push a project to this certain level I heard in my head before and then maybe even parallel start something different, something new - taking the time for reflection but never standstill or even become repetitive.

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