Ullman / Swell 4tet + Hat & Beard presented by AIMToronto
April 4, 2007 • Goethe Institut • Toronto
In Your Face Blast of Coherent Force by Tom Sekowski with photos by Roger Humbert
I've come across Gebhard Ullmann's music quite late - through his Soul Note CDs in the 90s, most notably the excellent Basement Research and Kreuzberg Park East. His immediacy on the clarinet and sax is something that grabbed me right away. He was equal parts warmth and brutal force. It didn't take much nudging then to get me down to his concert at the intimate confines of the Goethe Institut. It wasn't the volume that turned me on about this quartet's performance. I was already expecting this mother to be loud and ferocious. Rather, it was a perfect mixture of ideal acoustics and interplay between all four members that made me sit up and gawk in amazement.
Having recorded one CD three years back (Desert Songs and Other Landscapes) and preparing to record their second one, the quartet's sound was fresh and confident. Along with the two leader/composers - trombonist Steve Swell and clarinetist / saxophonist Gebhard Ullmann - the quartet also features bassist Hilliard Greene and percussionist Barry Altschul. Starting off the night with a subtle variation of duo head-to-head, where Swell blew exhausting lung-busting breaths into his trombone that were barely audible, while Ullmann effectively pumped out deep but quiet motifs from his bass clarinet. While Swell manipulated his trombone and pushed the slider as far out as it would go, you could hear the spittle bursting from his mouth. Put together with Ullmann's ferociously underplayed clarinet, the sound was an ecstatic way to start what would turn out to be a great concert.
The exceptionally strong rhythm section moved things along with a certain amount of urgency. Altschul (who will probably always be remembered as one of Anthony Braxton's better percussionists) kept popping the skins with full head-on power, while Greene continually plucked the strings of his bass with a dead-set agenda in mind. Surprisingly, neither of the two attempted to out-do the other. Instead, they worked as a good rhythm section should - propping each other with a certain amount of 'oomph' if one of them was lulling for a minute or two. To be honest, I feel the rhythm section could have used a certain amount of subtlety on Altschul's part, but then again, he has never been known as a restrained drummer.
One of the golden moments during the show was an improvised section where Greene was forcing the strings to sound like Ullmann's bass clarinet pops, while Ullmann was matching the aural qualities of Greene's bass. At times like this, one starts to truly appreciate the sense and reason of communal improvisation. Though this was improvised music, there was no mistaking these pieces were all written by either Swell or Ullmann. Sheets of music were flying all across the stage, while each member tried to read their part in the game that was proceeding much too quickly.
The music was tight, with both leaders throwing literal musical punches at each other. When Ullmann switched over to tenor, he was a sheer monster. His agile tone was oftentimes overburdened with stubbornness to take extended solos, but even those were quickly forgiven, once Swell stepped in with a farting trombone accompaniment. Not to say that Swell was simply accompanying as a large majority of what he played was forthright and in-your-face playing. The fat tones blowing from his trombone were crazy in their abundance and satisfying in terms of their variety of tone and texture. If there is anything negative to say about the show, it would be concerning its length. Clocking in at exactly an hour, it left some wanting more. With a certain hunger in my head, I left the room quite satiated, knowing this was still an outstanding musical event.
Without a doubt, it's worth a mention that opening for the quartet was a spectacular show by the Hat & Beard duo. Made up of guitarist Ken Aldcroft and the hat-wearing, bearded percussionist Dave Clark (of The WoodChoppers Association and the sadly disbanded Rheostatics), they kicked up the laughs by improvising on Thelonious Monk standards.
Aldcroft was in fact quite mild-mannered on guitar, as compared to his always-smiling, always goofing-off buddy Clark, who used just about everything at his disposal to put a rhythm in motion. An old pair of tap-dancing shoes, pennies on the skin of his snare, scrapes of the cymbals and tactful caresses with the mallets - it was all fair game. There was an obvious Han Bennink goofiness to Clark's on-going circus act, but this was actually a good thing, as rarely did he go completely over the top.
In the end, they were a grand success in bringing the laughter and the agile madness of Monk's music into the spotlight. Someone please facilitate a recording session for this duo as the world needs to be in on this duo's secret.