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Tomas Ulrich: Labyrinths, String Quartet & Surface: For Alto, Baritone and Strings

Kurt Gottschalk By

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Ayman Fanous/Tomas Ulrich
Labyrinths
Konnex
2006


TECK
String 4Tet
Clean Feed
2007


Rodrigo Amado
Surface: For Alto, Baritone and Strings
European Echoes
2007


Watching Tomas Ulrich perform is an insight into his working process. Poised behind his cello, he watches his bandmates like a hawk, his eyes darting from one to the next and picking up cues. But at the same time, his playing is nimble and beautiful, his hands seemingly detached from his head. The hawk, as it happens, is a sculptor.

Ulrich cites the composers Dmitri Shostakovich and Olivier Messiaen, along with Dolphy and Mingus, among his influences and there's a decidedly serious lilt to his playing. His duo with guitarist Ayman Fanous touches on flamenco and East European song forms in ways that show at once looseness in letting the music develop and tightness in doing so in tandem. Labyrinths is a striking set of string improvisations. Fanous reflects the two worlds of the nylon string guitar — classical and Spanish — beautifully and the titles ("Distant Shores , "Murmur , "So Long Utopia ), much like the music, suggest distant memories of faraway places.

The acoustic quartet TECK — with Ulrich, Elliott Sharp, Carlos Zingaro and Ken Filiano — veer even more closely toward what is dubiously referred to as "classical improv . With violin, cello, bass and guitar, the players submerge easily into a single voice; alternating who opens each piece, the nine tracks on their debut rush toward their individual potentials with a startling commitment. Hardly of the slowly-unfolding school, they seem to recognize immediately each new tunnel as soon as the light at the end flicks on, making for an exciting set of spontaneous, coherent music.

Surface: For Alto, Baritone and Strings uses three quarters of TECK, swapping out the guitar for Rodrigo Amado's saxophone. Heard in light of TECK's record, Surface stands as a testament to the sensitivity of Amado's playing. Where strings meld easily, saxophones can stand out brashly. But Amado's mellifluous tone doesn't step on the rest of the band. At times they push into brighter, jazzier arenas than TECK, with Zingaro adopting a bold, Stuff Smith sound. Elsewhere, Amado — best known for his work with the Lisbon Improvisation Players — almost sounds like a fourth set of strings. Dedicated to New York photographer Stephen Shore, the album art features Amado's own photos of New York City, representing another aspect of the band's dual American/ Portuguese citizenship. And representing two aspects of Amado's art, Surface is his best record to date.


Tracks and Personnel

Labyrinths

Tracks: Alluvial; Mariposa; Distant Shores; Inter Alia; Labyrinths; Sekhmet; Chiclana, Vere; Murmur; Reflections; So Long Utopia (Tess).

Personnel: Ayman Fanous: classical guitar; Tomas Ulrich: cello.

String 4Tet

Tracks: Leviatation; Intuitive reduction; If not now, when; Ripples; Swapfield; Memory Hanging; Hard evolution; Still not easy; As hard as it comes...

Personnel: Tomas Ulrich: cello; Elliott Sharp (acoustic and National Tricone guitars; Carlos "Zingaro": violin; Ken Filiano: bass.

Surface: For Alto, Baritone and Strings

Tracks: Uncommon Places; Natural Bridge; The City; Luzzara; Calculators; Room 28; Surface Suite: Eat; Talk; Look; Sleep; Walk; Trail's End; Art is Truth.

Personnel: Rodrigo Amado: alto and baritone saxophones; Tomas Ulrich: cello; Carlos "Zingaro": violin; Ken Filiano: bass.

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