German reed player Gebhard Ullmann is a busy man, splitting his time between Berlin and New York. Like an increasing number of jazz musicians he minimizes the down time by running a series of parallel projects ranging from trios to his ten piece Ta Lam ensemble. Tonight's grouping found him in the front line alongside one of NYC's most inventive trombonists: Steve Swell, with a seasoned rhythm pairing of Hilliard Greene on bass and drum maestro Barry Altschul. The group, which boasts an excellent outing on the CIMP labelDesert Songs
was halfway through a European tour that had brought them to the classy Wardrobe in Leeds on 1 November for their only UK concert.
This was just Ullmann's second time in the UK, and perhaps that explained what he euphemistically termed the "hand-selected" audience. It can sometimes be a lottery for a jazz promoter to guess how many people choose to come out on a particular night. Those who didn't missed a real treat. The size of audience in no way reflected the success or ambition of the artistic endeavour, as evidenced by two full sets, blending compositions from both Ullmann and Swell, with improvisations to fashion a free flowing whole, across a single piece in the first set and three in the second.
Ullmann's bubbling bass clarinet opened the first set in incremental style amid overlapping contributions from Greene and Altschul in a conversationally paced improv. As Greene rocked his bass from side to side, picking low down on the fretboard, Ullmann became more animated, eventually stretching up on his toes to hit the overblown high notes. When he subsided, Swell picked up the baton, initially accompanied only by Altschul. Straight from the get-go Swell was in the zone, glorying in lightning-fast articulations executed with a high-speed, up and down motion of his slide, pointing alternately at the floor, then the audience, inflecting his sound as he laid down a fiery solo.
A rhythm duet gave way to a spiky unison theme from the horns and then a quicker section over a funky groove. Altschul is a past master at this sort of free-bop, having paid his dues back in the 1970s with Anthony Braxton's classic quartets and the trios of Sam Rivers.
Swell and Ullmann, now on tenor saxophone, traded solos. Swell bobbed, weaved and leant back as he shaded and nuanced arcs of tension in a bravura display. Ullmann picked up Swell's concluding wavering phrase and then both took off together in highly charged free interplay. This simultaneous extemporization has become a hallmark of Swell's recent bands, in particular his stellar Slammin' the Infinite conglomeration, and it never ceases to excite.
Even as they played, there was a lot of signalling between the musicians, cueing in when a piece should emerge from the mix. I was struck that although halfway through a tour they had not settled into a routine and were evidently intent on keeping the music fresh. The fifty minute first set closed with a swinging exposition of an as yet unrecorded theme by Swell, featuring an impassioned middle register tenor solo from Ullmann and a blow out group cadenza.
Ullmann was adept at varying his tonal palette, on tenor moving from breathy Websterish smears to false fingering and circular breathed squalls, while on bass clarinet sounding languid and textural, though still with an occasional compelling squawk. He built his solos in short phrases, venturing sparingly into the upper registers.
There was a lot of room for everyone to shine. Altschul's second set feature on hi-hat was one of the highlights of the evening. As the first piece concluded, he brought his stool and trap cymbal to the front of the stage, announced "For Bill, and then embarked on an astonishing exhibition using just that one part of his kit. He modulated the ringing tones with his free hand, then returned to this motif between explorations of jazzy hi-hat patterns and the range of sound he could draw from the cymbal and its stand in a tour de force solo.
Elsewhere Altschul was powerful and precise, conveying an almost manic energy in his crisp punctuations and tumbling rhythmic pulse. Greene, who backs leaders as diverse as Charles Gayle and Jimmy Scott, ably kept the band moving forward, anchoring the interplay with rich ostinatos or colouring the ensemble with arco drones. His solos were deftly sculpted, deconstructing themes into their constituent elements for forensic examination before summoning group re-engagement.
An explosive rendition of a favorite Swell composition"Box Set closed the forty- minute second set, drawing a muscular tenor solo from Ullmann, who monitored its building intensity until he hit the altissimo, then an even higher falsetto, register of his horn for an extended passage of speaking in tongues. Swell joined for molten interplay as Altschul stoked the polyrhythmic fire, before a final reiteration of the driving theme and a sudden, telepathic halt.