Ullman, Gebhard: Ta Lam Zehn
(Leo Records: CDLR290)
Hinrich Beermann (sax), Daniel Erdmann (sax), Thomas Klemm (sax), Jurgen Kupke (clarinet), Joachim Litty (reeds), Theo Nabicht (reeds), Heiner Reinhart (bass clarinet), Volker Schlott (reeds), Gebhard Ullmann (reeds), Hans Hassler (accordeon)
Dolmen Orchestra: Sequenze Armoniche
(Leo Records: CDLR291)
Pino Melfi (trumpet), Marco Sannini (trumpet), Alfredo Sette (trumpet), France Angiulo (trumbone), Michele Marrano (french horn), Nino Bisceglie (tuba), Paola Cicolella (flute), Nicola Puntillo (clarinets), Vittorio Gallo (sax), Felice Mezzina (sax), Gaetano Partipilo (sax), Pasquale Gadaleta (bass), Antonio Dambrosio (drums), Aldo Bagnoni (percussion), Armanda Desider (percussion), Linda Bsiri (voice, sea trumpet), Michel Godard (tuba, serpent), John Surman (sax), Nicola Pisani (conducting), Vico Miloli (trumpet, one track only), Enrico Del Gaudio (percussion, one track only), Giovannangelo De Gennaro (voice)
Sun Ra: Live at Praxis '84
(Leo Records: GY5/6)
Sun Ra (keys), Ronnie Brown (trumpet), Marshall Allen (reeds), Eloe Omoe (reeds), John Gilmore (reeds), Danny Ray Thompson (reeds), James Jacson (reeds), Rollo Redford (bass), Matthew Brown (conga), Don Mamford (drums), Salah Ragab (conga) [NB most musicians play numerous instruments]
"Big Band Jazz": not the first phrase which springs to mind when considering the world's avant garde musics of the late twentieth century. And so it has turned out to be, because free jazz has never been a big-money game, and big bands cost big money, so the results don't take much working out. On the slightly more mainstream side of the weird music continuum, however, bandleaders have long enjoyed trying ambitious experiments which, as is in the nature of such things, sometimes work and sometimes donít.
One of those bandleaders, and the most legendary, was Sun Ra. This disk reissues a triple vinyl release now unavailable, and documents what appears to be an entire, two-hour concert by the Arkestra from 1984. At this point, Ra had lost much of his avant garde following and gone some distance on a journey down a road few would follow him on, a rediscovery of some of the kitscher elements of big band jazz in which he had always had a prurient interest. So here we get "Somewhere Over the Rainbow", "Mack the Knife", "Days of Wine and Roses" and "Satin Doll" in amongst the free-fall improvisations and outer-space chants.
Many of those arkestral improvisations are, as most Ra fans will eventually admit, pretty unlistenable, and there's a really baggy example here, but what's pleasing is that there's not too much of that nonsense and that we have plenty of Ra playing in smaller groupings and especially solo, something he was weirdly good at. His cocktail cheesiness intercut with funky blues and atonal splatters must have sounded pretty radical in '84, and even more radical back when he started doing it, but these days every Tom, Dick and Harry does inter-genre collages and the whole thing can sound a little cheap. Yes, these solos do manage to make some musical sense, but in the end there's a tameness here which isn't in his earlier work.
You either like this side of Ra or you don't. Those who do would argue, one supposes, that his cross-fertilisation of Henry Mancini with Cecil Taylor raises profound questions about the history of jazz, which it undoubtedly does, but that's a dubious reason for wanting to own the record. Add to that the fact that this is a not-very-good recording of a band who sound tired and sloppy and it's not a terribly attractive proposition. Ra completists won't find it's the worst thing in their collections by a long chalk, but it's by no means the man at his best, not even for this period.
The Dolmen Orchestra are a jazz band retrieving and altogether different musical tradition into their free jazz base -- that of the Gregorian chant. It sounds grim, like a bunch of people whistfully playing prettied-up Medieval music for the benefit of a middle-brow audience that like to think it's being adventurous. Well, this isn't hardcore avantgardia here, but it's not rubbish either. Indeed, these five compositions, each by a different bandmember, manager to use the Gregorian elements in an almost entirely covert way, enabling their origins slyly to elude the casual listener.
They do get close to easy listening briefly with Nico Marziliano's "Contemplation for a Sacral Sequence", which is pretty horrible unless you like your jazz to sound a bit like a very good overture to a West End musical; the title track has moments like this, too, and it can be a bit upsetting. This, though, isn't the rule, and the track which follows Marziliano's, "Ferma l'Ali" by impressive tubist Michel Godard, comes on like something by Berio with its swooping female voice and controlled but chaotic-sounding band. The high points of this record are truly marvellous; the low points low only for being inoffensive, lazy, unremarkable. By contrast the opener, "Sequenza", is remarkable, one of those starts to an album which promise more than the following hour can possibly deliver.
Ullmann's big band is an all-reeds one, playing his own compositions which have a tendency to fuse jazz with both '20s Modernism (think Hindemith, Stravinsky and Weill) and various "world" musics, particularly the folk musics of the Middle East. Ullmann has the finest sense of orchestration of anyone represented on the four disks considered here, and by quite some distance; his ability to spread his big, think harmonies around so that they shimmer into life is extremely impressive.
He's helped by the fact that the band are a fine one, and the soloists make strong, intelligent statements under what are often loud and harmonically complicated conditions. He's also helped by his ability to write good tunes, with enough tricky convolutions to keep the free jazz fans happy. This is positively big band jazz -- not the accretion of small groups which the Arkestra generally greaks down into, nor the pretty much through-composed music of the Dolmen Orchestra but a music which genuinely fuses big tunes and funky arrangements with integral improvisation.
"Ta Lam Zehn" is very impressive stuff, and if you like your jazz sharp and spikey but composed, you'll be hard-pushed to do better than this. Proof that using composition doesn't mean taking the easy route out, the only reservation one might have is that early Modernist connection; this music does sound a bit quaint, and not very contemporary. If that doesn't bother you -- and really, why should it? -- this set of clever, well-constructed and exuberantly-played pieces is a real treasure.