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Gebhard Ullmann: Variations on a Master Plan

Kurt Gottschalk By

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It’s probably obvious to say that German saxophonist Gebhard Ullmann’s master plan is to keep jazz alive, but it’s hard not to draw such a conclusion from his new quartet record. The title seems an obvious take on the classic Pharoah Sanders piece and the music within follows Ullmann’s history of working the tradition like a lump of clay, stretching and molding it but retaining the essential material.

Ullmann’s bands are generally split between New York and European players, drawing heavily from the Berlin scene. He has worked with Phil Haynes, Andreas Willers, Ellery Eskelin, Drew Gress and Matt Wilson among others in the past. Here he adds Dutch drummer Han Bennink to a group with longtime collaborator Joe Fonda (exclusively on bass for this session) and pianist Michael Jefry Stevens. The band is solid, with all but Bennink contributing to the songbook, and adding a Debussy theme and a short piece by Nino Rota (most known for his Fellini and spaghetti western soundtracks). The surprise here is the drummer. Bennink is a great percussionist whose onstage antics are a large part of the ICP Orchestra’s charismatic shows. His rolls and sudden bursts are recognizable, but he seems to be content to be a timekeeper for this live recording.

The material is moody and evocative, from the lyricism of Ullman’s Debussy arrangement and Stevens’ appropriately titled "Quiet" to Fonda’s upbeat "Circle" and the driving explorations of the one fully improvised piece. It may not have the sweeping sense of purpose of some of the leader's previous work, notably the reed octet on Ta Lam Zehn , another live recording issued by Leo, but Ullman is dextrous on bass clarinet and tenor and soprano saxophones, and the group comes together for a strong survey.

Track Listing: Quiet (10:45) / Circle (8:57) / Variations on a Theme by Claude Debussy (13:51) / Parlami Di Me (2:54) / Improvisation No. 2 (7:18) / Song for My Mother (3:30).

Personnel: Gebhard Ullmann-bass clarinet, tenor & soprano saxophone; Michael Jefry Stevens- piano; Joe Fonda-bass; Han Bennink-drums. Recorded: March 7, 2001, Munich, Germany.

Title: Variations on a Master Plan | Year Released: 2003 | Record Label: Leo Records

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