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News? No News! by Gebhard Ullmann / Steve Swell 4

Multi-reedist and composer Gebhard Ullmann is one of those players who refuses to be pigeonholed. His bright, edgy playing fits into numerous musical contexts - be it fusion, free jazz, avant garde, post-bop, or blues, Ullmann always has something compelling and interesting to offer. Starting in the early 1980s in a variety of left-of-center jazz and fusion-oriented bands in his native Germany (mostly with the great guitarist and composer Andreas Willers), Ullmann has branched out gradually over the years both stylistically and career-wise. Now a part-time resident of Berlin and New York City, Ullmann continues to create music that succeeds on several fronts. News? No News?, co-led by Ullmann and trombonist Steve Swell, is an informal, rumbustious, free-wheeling summit meeting of four of the most skilled jazz improvisors around. Steve Swell, like Ullmann, is one of the most active players on the scene. Over the past decade or so, he's appeared on countless recording sessions as a leader and as a sideman (the latter most notably with Ullmann's Basement Research, William Parker, Joey Baron's 'Baron Down,' John Zorn, Ken Vandermark, and Jaki Byard to name a few). Swell's a bold, big toned, emotive player in the mold of Roswell Rudd, Gary Valente, and Glenn Ferris. He's also a remarkably resourceful improvisor who never seems to run out of cogent and fresh ideas. Ageless drummer Barry Altschul, recently returned to the scene after several years in limbo, shows here that he's lost nothing in terms of chops or instincts. His playing throughout this disc is as fertile, pointillistically dynamic, and quick-minded as his work with Paul Bley, Sam Rivers, and Anthony Braxton was nearly four decades ago. Bassist Hilliard Greene, perhaps the least-known of the quartet is no less a giant, as he's proved on numerous sessions with Swell, Charles Gayle, Roy Campbell, Cecil Taylor, Little Jimmy Scott, and Jack Walrath's Masters Of Suspense.

The majority of News? No News? is uptempo, post-Ornette / post-Ayler jazz with plenty of room for expressive and extended solos. The quartet comes out swinging on 'More Hello,' a good-natured but feisty tune that reminds me of something that Dewey Redman might have written. Ullmann wastes no time getting to the meat of his solo within the first dozen notes. Swell follows suit for his chorus, riding waves of turbulent drums and bass. The uptempo 'New York 5:50' is a somewhat introspective tune with a boppish rhythm and a humorous melody line stated by Ullmann's bass clarinet in tandem with Swell's plunger-muted 'bone. 'Planet Hopping on a Thursday Afternoon' has a similar rhythmic demeanor, but sports a positively lush melody line (kudos to Swell for this one!). The title track is quite distinctive and original; a gospel-derived lament set up as a canon between Swell's trombone and Ullmann's bass clarinet, underpinned by a swaggering post-bop rhythm. 'Airtight' opens with a virtuosic bass solo from Greene who introduces the trance-like ostinato that sets up Altschul's rocking polyrhythms. This piece, written by Swell, has a nice long melody line that provides a nice springboard for solos by both horn players. Altschul gets in a particularly spectacular solo here, as well.

On the group improvisations (GPS #1, GPS #2) and the ballad-like pieces ('Kleine Figuren #2, and the first half of the slowly coalescing 'Comosite #1), Greene and Altschul provide a wide range of sound colors and atmospherics. Though the group's interests clearly hew to the higher-energy end of the modern jazz spectrum, its essentially cooperative nature really seems to blossom during the CD's most abstract moments. No one tiptoes around - their playing remains forceful, aware, and sure-footed even in the most sparse and pianissimo musical settings. News? No News! is a thoroughly enjoyable, tough-minded slab of modern jazz listening pleasure for advanced sets of ears.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Gebhard Ullmann / Steve Swell 4
  • CD Title: News? No News!
  • Genre: Free Jazz / Avante Garde
  • Year Released: 2010
  • Record Label: Jazzwerkstatt Records
  • Tracks: More Hello, New York 5:50, Composite #1, Kleine Figuren #2, Planet Hopping on a Thursday Afternoon, GPS #1, News? No News!, GPS #2, Berlin 9:35, Airtight
  • Musicians: Gebhard Ullmann (tenor saxophone, bass clarinet), Steve Swell (trombone), Hilliard Greene (double bass), Barry Altschul (drums)
  • Rating: Five Stars
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