For his second album, New York guitarist, composer and educator David Ullman was determined to challenge himself. It’s not as if he didn’t on this first one, Hidden (2005), but as he explains, Ullmann “really wanted to strip away my previous comfort zones.” As someone who has worked as a lead guitarist in a couple of world electronica groups and whose own debut album was a little bit electric (with a Fender Rhodes), a little bit worldy (with a tabla), Falling is a shift, toward the acoustic side. Ullmann keeps his guitar plugged in but has formed a new quintet, consisting of Chris Dingman on vibes, Gary Wang on acoustic bass, Karel Ruzicka, Jr. on saxophone and Vinnie Sperrazza on drums. It’s a tactic that goes against the prevailing trend of starting acoustic and moving into electric or electro-acoustic, but Ullmann has found the greater artistic expression he was looking for whit this talented bunch of young musicians.
Ruzicka (Ravi Coltrane, George Benson, Roy Hargrove) is a very, dynamic, modern saxophonist, playing much in the style of the late Michael Brecker. Chris Dingman (Steve Lehman, Harris Eisenstadt) evokes Bobby Hutcherson in his harmonic development and tone. The rhythm section of Wang and Sperrazza are firmly rooted in tradional jazz but with an open mind and flexibility to adapt Ullmann’s forward-thinking compositions. The net effect of these human components and Ullman’s resourcefulness is a collection of performances of tunes that are easily listenable just as it’s full of interesting creases that make closer investigation well worthwhile.
Ullmann makes use of his front line partners to the fullest, doubling up with each of them in different ways for each song. Ruzicka helps him amplify the thematic lines on the opening “When” and the closing “Reckon,” as well as the 6/8-paced “Gesture.” All three combine for “Cycles” and trade off pairings on “Falling,” shaping the harmonic character of each track in distinct ways.
Moreover, the individual performances stand out in astute ways that bespeaks of guys are well past the stage of showing off chops for chops’ sake. I think that’s an approach that begins with the leader: Ullmann prefers clear, resonate timbres using single note progressions that are most evident in solos such as those found on “March” and “Cycles,” where he even replicates the warmness of Metheny. Ruzicka excels in locating and expressing the emotion in a melody, much as Brecker was able to do, and his showcases on “When,” “March” and “Second Chance” attest to that. Dingman, meanwhile, is nimble in straddling the comping and lead roles, virtually replacing the missing piano playing with a very keen sense for harmony and swing.
No sophomore slump for David Ullmann, is the verdict on Falling. Here’s a guitarist who seems to have only hinted as to what more he has in store for us, and going on his two disparate but solid releases, his future ones bear close attention, too.
Falling went on sale August 7, by Wet Cash Records. Visit David Ullmann’s website for more info.