In these days of global jazz alliances, the partnership of downtown trombonist Steve Swell and German reedman Gebhard Ullmann won't raise too many eyebrows. More noteworthy is its endurance, spanning some six years since its auspicious inception with Desert Songs and Other Landscapes (CIMP, 2004). Swell is also a fixture in Ullmann's Basement Research band, another combo that shows similar staying power. News? No News!, a studio date on Berlin's Jazzwerkstatt imprint, constitutes a worthy successor to the CIMP, featuring an unchanged lineup completed by Hilliard Greene on bass and the illustrious Barry Altschul behind the drums. Democratic intent is signaled by division of writing duties with four pieces penned by each of the co-leaders along with two group improvisations rounding out a generous 69-minute program.
Both Swell and Ullmann are exciting soloists: the saxophonist's throaty tenor can barely contain his energy in the shrieks and cries adorning Swell's rumbustious shout-out, "More Hello," while his yelping bass clarinet at times recalls Eric Dolphy in its vocalized chuckle (adroitly echoed by Altschul), as on the fluent "GPS#2." A willing foil throughout, the trombonist's tender bluster and vivacious expressiveness both complement and challenge his partner.
One of the pleasures of this set is the interaction between the two horns, with an a cappella duet seeding the open debate of "Composite #1," while their clarion chorus places the cherry on top of the reedman's "Berlin." Greene's powers of propulsion and timbral variation are ably abetted by Altschul's crisp on-the-money drums in a pairing which is as tight as it is flexible. They plot the genial lope of Swell's "Planet Hopping On A Thursday Afternoon" and the urgent knotty rush of the closing "Airtight" with equal aplomb.
Such refined but not rote interplay remains one of the defining characteristics of this band and, when allied to their unpredictable charts, makes for a winning combination. Ullmann's "New York" evokes the opening of Charles Mingus' The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (Impulse!, 1963) in its braying theme over two-speed bass throb and driving drums, while the confident swagger of his "Berlin" transmutes by way of involved exploration into a more wistful conclusion, reflecting the range and ingenuity of the arrangements.
Even the improvisations have satisfying structure, as with "GPS #1" where a measured group discourse of breathy harmonics and whispered asides is sandwiched between Greene's wavering arco whale song and a tolling bass and drum duet finale, confirming an early contender for those year-end best-of lists.
More Hello; New York; Composite #1; Kleine Figuren #2; Planet Hopping On A Thursday Afternoon; GPS #1; News? No News!; GPS#2; Berlin; Airtight.
Steve Swell: trombone; Gebhard Ullman: tenor saxophone, bass clarinet; Hilliard Greene: bass; Barry Altschul: drums.
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