Although he may be German by descent and residence, multireedist Gebhard Ullmann is a man of the world. In the ’90s, Ullmann enjoyed a split residency between Brooklyn and Berlin. But because European bookings and New York rent increased, Ullmann now lives in Berlin full time—but don’t expect him there too much: he spends as much time on the road as at home.
“Traveling for me is very important,” says Ullmann, 44, who has performed in Africa, the Middle East, Australia, Southeast Asia, Mexico, Indonesia, Europe and North America. Ullmann is often put on tour by the German cultural society the Goethe-Institut to spread German music. “They send out jazz musicians because jazz musicians are able to play with local musicians on an improvisational basis,” says Ullmann. “I always pick up idioms of the folk music [in the places I travel]—and I try and translate it to my own language.”
When he’s not racking up Lufthansa frequent-flyer miles, Ullmann is busy composing for his litany of transient groups—currently including a clarinet trio, a jazz quartet, and a big band—many of which have been documented on over 20 CDs by labels like Soul Note, Songlines and Leo. “I have compositions I write for specific groups,” he says. “But I also will compose a piece and arrange it for different lineups. I choose pieces for different projects very carefully.”
One of his most personal, individualistic, and interesting projects is Tá Lam, his 1993 album featuring himself overdubbing woodwinds to accompaniment by accordion player Hans Hassler. Since then he has reconceived the project on multiple occasions. In 1994, he recorded Moritat, an album by Tá Lam Acht, the eight-piece band convened to play Tá Lam material. After Songlines reissued Tá Lam and Moritat in 1998, Ullmann brought the even-larger Tá Lam Zehn band to North America and recorded Tá Lam Zehn: Vancouver Concert (Leo), which captured the 10-piece group live in 1999.
Even in more conventional settings, Ullmann’s performance, improvisation and composition are fresh. His latest release, Essencia (Between the Lines), finds Ullmann in a quieter trio setting, backed by German pianist Jens Thomas and Portuguese bassist Carlos Bica. The mostly improvised date is rife with new methods of creating and contrasting melody, as the trio gently weaves in and out of structured compositions. The music is gentle and hypnotizing—unlike the world traveling that Ullmann so loves.