Gebhard Ullmann: The Big Band Project

Multireedist Gebhard Ullmann is a terrific improviser, adept on tenor and soprano saxes, bass flute and bass clarinet. He’s also relentless, headed in several directions at once.

The Big Band Project presents Ullmann’s original compositions arranged by Satoko Fujii, Chris Dahlgren, Gunter Lenz and Andy Emler, and performed by the North German Radio Big Band. Experimental big-band music is often a huge mass of disorganized thrashing about. A couple minutes into track one, Fujii’s arrangement of “Think Tank,” I was afraid that might be a problem here. Not to worry: Fujii’s chart is an anomaly. For the most part the band strikes the right balance between order and chaos. The group is impressively tight when the occasion demands, and it’s exciting throughout. As the primary soloist, Ullmann excels. He’s a font of energy and originality.

Ballads and Related Objects is one of those works that make me appreciate the serendipity of jazz’s acquaintance with post-Schoenberg art music. Ullmann (on bass clarinet), with his cohorts Jurgen Kupke (B-flat clarinet) and Michael Thieke (B-flat and alto clarinets) combine to form a clarinet version of World Saxophone Quartet, complete with grooving vamps, post-tonal improvisation, metrically sophisticated compositions and preternaturally sensitive group dynamic. All three are serious chopsmeisters, but there’s nothing gratuitous about the way they exploit their virtuosity. As all-horn bands go, it doesn’t get much better than this.

BassX3 presents Ullmann on bass flute as well as bass clarinet, in a trio with bassists Chris Dahlgren and Peter Herbert. Ullmann’s bass-flute work is quite attractive. He gets a big sound, heavy on the upper partials. Both horns blend nicely with the twin basses. They provide a difference in register without compromising the prevailing concept-an emphasis on the lower end of the sound spectrum. While it’s not altogether clear which bassist is which, both players play beautifully. Peter Herbert is a fine player who’s never really gotten his due, and Dahlgren is just as accomplished.