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Spotlight Project: The David Ullmann 8 Corduroy
Guitarist-Composer David Ullmann’s Third Album, Corduroy, Evokes the Bittersweet Melodicism of ’70s TV Scores, Brought to Life by Jazz Virtuosos
Ullmann’s color-rich New York octet features Kirk Knuffke (cornet), Brian Drye (trombone), Mike McGinnis (clarinet), Loren Stillman (saxophone), Chris Dingman (vibraphone), Gary Wang (bass) & Vinnie Sperrazza (drums)
“This guitarist weaves an intoxicating tale." — DownBeat
David Ullmann – described as “a thoughtful guitarist and composer” by The New York Times – was beguiled by the buoyant lyricism of the TV theme tunes he grew up on as a child of the ’70s. To a lifelong New Yorker like Ullmann, these melodies are also imbued with a bittersweet nostalgia that he associates with the bygone Manhattan of his youth. With his third album as a leader – to be released August 26, 2014, via Little Sky Records – Ullmann aimed to evoke not the style but the feeling of that music, its addictive melodicism and air of wistfulness, hence the album’s title, Corduroy: “Like a smell or a sound, the feel of something can stir up memories,” he says. “Corduroy was big in the ’70s, and just touching it, the texture can take me back.” To bring his pieces to vibrant life, Ullmann created ingenious arrangements for an octet of New York jazz virtuosos, who sound surprisingly at home in music often gentler and more lyrical than they are usually known for performing. Ullmann’s coloristic guitar complements the playing of Kirk Knuffke (cornet), Brian Drye (trombone), Mike McGinnis (clarinets), Loren Stillman (alto saxophone), Chris Dingman (vibraphone), Gary Wang (double-bass) and Vinnie Sperrazza (drums). The latter three also graced the quintet on Ullmann’s 2012 album, Falling, which Philadelphia City Paper praised for qualities it termed “contemplative” and “shimmering.”
Explaining the allure of that ’70s feeling, Ullmann says: “The themes from the TV shows evoked more emotions in me than the shows themselves. I just loved the sound of ‘Angela’ from Taxi and ‘Suicide Is Painless’ from M.A.S.H. I also thought it was cool that the studio musicians who played these TV themes included jazz players – Bob James wrote the Taxi song and recorded it with guys like Eric Gale, Randy Brecker and Ron Carter. And Paul Desmond and Bill Evans covered the M.A.S.H. song.” The band Ullmann assembled for Corduroy consisted of top young performers on the New York jazz scene, many of whom are longtime collaborators. “There was a real sense of camaraderie in the studio, and the session was a lot better for it,” Ullmann says. “I think you can hear that warmth in the music – and that’s the whole idea.” Cornetist Kirk Knuffke agrees, saying: “It was a really fun session.”
If the subtle sounds of Jim Hall are a touchstone for Ullmann the guitarist, he looked to another guitar hero for inspiration arrangement-wise. “I love Bill Frisell’s larger-ensemble records – he creates such great textures on those records, with this ability to make wonderful, absorbing music out of simple forms,” Ullmann says. “With the band for Corduroy, I was going for a little big band sound. It doesn’t have that big band style, being more jazz-rock, with the rock influence coming from the ’70s singer-songwriter side of things. But there’s a richness texturally and harmonically to this octet that helps add depth to what are generally straightforward tunes.” The album is made up of pieces that are like “songs without words,” says clarinetist Mike McGinnis. Yet, as Knuffke points out, these “really well-written and nicely arranged” songs have enough room in them for the soloists to express themselves in their improvisations. Saxist Loren Stillman says, simply: “It makes me feel good to play this music.”
Corduroy opens with “The Chase,” with Stillman’s serpentine sax lines giving off a snake-charming vibe before the track’s airy main melody takes hold and tunefully imaginative solos follow by Drye on trombone, McGinnis on clarinet and the composer on guitar. “I’m inspired by the way the guys in this octet play,” Ullmann says. “The music is so tonal and uncomplicated, really, that you get to hear them play in a style that you don’t normally – a real melodiousness comes out. Some of the solos are fantastic, like Kirk’s on ‘You Can’t Go Back.’ Then there is Mike’s Eric Dolphy-like bass clarinet on ‘Ocelot.’ Gary and Vinnie are great together, and the grooves they come up with and the way they listen to the soloists help shape the music. And Chris’s vibraphone took the music to another place. He doesn’t even solo on the closing track, ‘Moving On,’ but his vibes created a harmonic shimmer that helps bring out the dreamy, nostalgic element of the music. It sounds to me like the way an old Polaroid looks, which is a lot of what Corduroy is about.”
David Ullmann 8 from David Ullmann on Vimeo.
Born in 1972 and raised in Manhattan, guitarist and composer David Ullmann has recorded three albums as a leader: Hidden (2005), Falling (2012) and Corduroy (2014). About his debut release, All About Jazz said: “Hidden is an exciting record that reflects restless creativity. Each track builds on the next and works to keep the listener on guard and engaged. This dynamism leads to a satisfying sense of taking a journey as the record plays.” Something Else! praised Falling for its “forward-thinking compositions,” while Washington City Paper marveled over Ullmann and company’s ability to “float with grace.”
A graduate of the New School jazz program, Ullmann has performed extensively in and around New York City, including at CBGB, the Blue Note, Wetlands, the Knitting Factory and 55 Bar. He has also performed at numerous festivals, including the JVC Jazz Festival, Artwallah, Sono Arts and the Fringe Festival. The guitarist also composes music for film, most recently completing the score for The Happy House, a feature by D.W. Young. Ullmann’s first film project, Atsushi Funahashi’s Echoes, was well-received by critics and film festivals, winning three Jury and Audience Awards at Annonay International Film Festival in France and the High Hope Award at the Munich International Film Festival. Ullmann teaches guitar and songwriting at John Jay College in Manhattan.