Whenever American trombonist Steve Swell and German saxophonist/clarinetist Gebhard Ullmann get together for a new album or performance, one can expect pure energy within the creditable expeditions into the avant-garde/free territory. Assuring a diversity of attractive sounds, the moods adopted can rapidly shift from boisterous to reflective.
Their first recording together, as Ullmann-Swell Quartet, goes back to 2005 with Desert Songs And Other Landscapes (CIMP), proceeding in 2008 with Live in Montreal (City Hall), and again two years later with News? No News! (Jazzwerkstatt) In all three, they relied on a go-ahead rhythmic foundation laid down by bassist Hilliard Greene and drummer Barry Altschul.
In their new album, a celebration of a decade of friendship and musicianship, they resolved to expand their concept of sound and rhythm through approaches that lead to new possibilities. To achieve this, they renew the rhythm section by calling two skilled instrumentalists from Chicago, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, who is also in charge of electronics, and drummer Michael Zerang. The album/project gets the understandable title of The Chicago Plan.
Ullmann contributes with four compositions, including two parts of his magnificent suite “Variations on a Master Plan” whose Pt.3 fires up the recording. Making its way through an inebriating groove, this tune works as an irresistible invitation for what comes next. The reeds, always cheek by jowl, move in a zealous spiral whether playing untied polyphonies, uncanny unisons, or strolling with no accompaniment. Joy is all around even when Lonberg-Holm brings a slice of solemnity with his cello movements.
If Pt.3 is a sunny day, Pt.2 is a quiet night. The band generates a yearning chamber music that surrounds us with soberer tones.
Swell’s 18-minute “Composite #10” oozes energy from everywhere and brings Anthony Braxton into mind, not only because of its title but also due to its structure and musical force. The first five minutes are filled with thoughtful spanks, bonks, and chomps of Zerang’s stiff-less drumming. He was just making room for the pugnacious and highly-rhythmic altercation that arrives next, where Swell and Ullmann expel brisk phrases that sometimes match, sometimes diverge. The band reserves a section for the apocalyptic white noise produced by Lonberg-Holm’s electronics.
Packed with excruciating musical venom, “Rule #1” accentuates the quartet’s impeccable sense of tempo. The reedists show off the virile and unorthodox avant-jazz jargon, having Zerang’s punchy rhythms in the background. The electrifying drummer shines once again in “Déjà Vu”, a more restrained tune devised with bouncy folk melodies, cacophonic murmurs, and precious silences.
These four staunch improvisers know how to make us alert, working the dynamics and textures with an impressive gusto.
It might take a few years for the Ullmann-Swell Quartet reunite again, but until there, we have the creditable The Chicago Plan to rack our brains out.