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Reviews: Sperrgut

Birgit Ulher: trumpet
Damon Smith: double bass
Martin Blume: percussion


Touching Extremes

Currently in a very prolific phase of her career, here Birgit Ulher joins forces with bass player Damon Smith and percussionist Martin Blume in a lively trio which applies various methods to concoct a lively expressiveness, enhanced by the musicians' fine technical abilities. At times almost jubilant, the enthusiastic incitement of these conversations becomes a reflection on contrasting vibrations, enriched by emphatic twists and percussive knots which keep the attention level quite high. The reciprocal responsiveness shown by the participants throughout the nine tracks of this album is particularly significant: Ulher's trumpet maintains - not without difficulty - a strong sense of denial of everything that could be defined as "common", while Smith and Blume's division of the low-frequency range creates additional substance, thus contributing to the transformation of this music from a complex miniature to a dedicated exploration of challenging languages.

Massimo Ricci,

Bad Alchemy

Damon Smith (*1972, Spokane, WA) verdankte Mike Watt 1991 den Kick vom BMX-Bicycle-Freestyler zum Fenderbassisten, bevor ihn 1994 die Bekanntschaft mit der Musik von Peter Kowald zum Kontrabass wechseln ließ und damit erneut zum Freestyle. Seitdem war er vor allem im Kontext mit dem Altosaxophonisten Marco Eneidi zu hören, mit Gianni Gebbia und auch Kowald persönlich oder auch im Emergency String Quartet und im Dave Tucker West Coast Project (beides BA-einschlägig). Seit einiger Zeit widmet sich das BPA-Label in Oakland speziell seiner Musik, mit der er auffallend häufig Begegnungen mit Musikern aus Germany sucht - neben Kowald etwa Wolfgang Fuchs, Frank Gratkowski, Serge Baghdassarians, Boris Baltschun oder Martin Blume (Zero Plus, bpa007). Erneut mit dem Bochumer Drummer und mit der Trompeterin Birgit Ulher, beide im Oktober 2004 auf musikalischer Stipvisite an der West Coast, gelingt Smith eine exemplarische Reihe von Soundclashes, geradezu fiebrige Stenographien aus geräuschhaften Kürzeln, die durch ihre Quickness und spritzige Fülle am ‚expressiven‘, besser, am dynamischen Pol der Plinkplonkskala herum wirbeln. Rasende Molekularbewegungen, so schnell und funkelnd, dass die Lautpixel bei aller Kompression und Reibung soviel ‚Luft‘, soviel Zeit und Raum zwischen sich lassen wie die Sternenmilch und der Satellitenschrott im Makrokosmos. Sperrgut ist ein schönes deutsches Wort und lässt anklingen, dass sich darunter noch allerhand Brauchbares finden ließe, statt es zu zerschreddern und in Müllheizkraftwerken durch den Schlot zu jagen. Sperrig ist die schnarrende, spuckig zerstotterte, schabende, rappelnde, mit erstaunlichen Saitenverbiegungen aufwartende Ästhetik des Trios insofern, dass sie nicht glatt ins Ohr rutscht, dass sie aneckt, kratzt, kitzelt, irritiert, manchmal zu winzig für das Auge, oft zu schnell für das Ohr. Dass zwischen Sperrgut und Müll Platz für ein riesiges Kulturindustriegebiet bleibt, ist freilich nicht gerade eine Neuigkeit.

Rigobert Dittmann, Bad Alchemy #49


The specific meaning of terms migrates over time. “New School” inevitably becomes “Old”, not that the phrase should necessarily take on a pejorative aspect. The three other discs featuring Damon Smith’s playing could, I think it’s fair to say, be described as post-Parker/Bailey improv (Evan and Derek, not Charlie and Buster), music that’s relatively active and given to short flurries, pointillist rather than spatially oriented. It’s also characterized, to an extent, by something of an insular quality, much more self-referential than outward looking, for instance tending not to incorporate sound/music from without the free improv ambit. Absolutely nothing wrong with this, of course, and I’d strongly encourage those for whom that area holds general attraction to check them out, but some listeners, myself included, prefer hearing such music produced when the very notion carried with it more of a sense of explorative excitement. Smith, in his writing, has shown himself to be quite open to various other modes of improvisational expression, but it was only on “Sperrgut” that I received a sense of this being translated into sound. To be sure, it’s not a decided break from the previously mentioned discs but there’s something—one assumes it might largely revolve around the presence of Ulher—that breathes extra life into this session, that expands it well beyond any whiff of hermeticism. As seems to be the rule on these releases, the tracks are shorter than normally encountered in this area, here nine spread over about 50 minutes, but unlike elsewhere where I often wanted to hear ideas expounded upon at greater length, the durations on “Sperrgut” feel just about right. Ulher brings out the more liquid side of Smith’s and Blume’s playing largely by dint of her own deliciously wet sound as the trio slides and slithers through the pieces (all titled with what appear to be measurements for some arcane purpose, e.g. “0.30 x 1.60 x 3.25m”) with abandon, the stops and starts possessing a great sense of being embedded in an underlying continuum rather than sputtering in isolation. The three work together beautifully, percussionist Blume actually providing a good deal of the more “melodic” content, allowing Smith to salt the brew with some needed, more astringent palate cleansing, though he works in a good deal of lovely, rich, low arco in several of the tracks as well. Although they’re actually quite varied, the improvisations feel very much of a piece, excerpts from an ongoing conversation. There’s not a weak performance in the bunch; an excellent effort.

Brian Olewnick,

Signal to Noise

It’s all for one and one for all on Sperrgut, but ultimately it is German trumpeter Ulher who stands out on this 2004 session of spirited cross hatches and pretzel-like lattices. Like her fellow European exponents of minimal brass and breath resonations, Axel Dorner and Franz Hautzinger, Ulher’s Bill Dixon-like morse code extended techniques of sputters, chortles, chirps, spurts, bleats and air generations dart and hover like a hummingbird pecking at a flower. Smith and Blume bob and weave, cutting and thrusting when there is an opening. Like Ulher, they aren’t interested in adhering to any conventions as they roam, rattle and stroke their instruments in focused bursts, never lingering too long in one place. Ulher has long been interested in painting, particularly abstract expressionism, and accordingly she gives the tracks canvas-like specifications, ie 6.30 X 1.60 X 3.25 m.

Richard Moule,


Hailing from the Bay Area, delivers a collection of open-ended improvisations that traffic in classic call-and-response mode. With boundless invention, all three members of the trio delve deep into their respective instruments to dredge up the most esoteric varieties of sound imaginable. Melody, harmony, rhythm and structure are concepts best left at the table when confronting an album like this. This date is concerned solely with texture, timing and dynamics. Birgit Ulher’s trumpet playing is suitably expressive, veering from sputtered whinnies to blats, smears and whispers. Upright bassist Damon Smith plays his instrument much as its smaller cousins are commonly used. Rather than plucking the instrument in a traditional way, he uses his bow to generate sound instead, veering from subtle harmonics to dissonant scrapes. Martin Blume flails around his trap set with a coloristic sensibility, less concerned with pulse than tonal variety. A competent session of limited appeal, this will satisfy those seeking cerebral improvisation, but for those in the market for harmony, melody and rhythm, best look elsewhere.

Troy Collins, Cadence

Birgit Ulher/Damon Smith/Martin Blume
Sperrgut/ Balance point bpa009
Birgit Ulher/Lars Scherzberg/Michael Maierhof
Nordzucker / Creative Sources CS 052

Hamburg-based trumpeter Birgit Ulher never misses an opportunity to challenge herself with new improvisational partners – even if she has to leave the country to do so. Take these memorable CDs. Although both are nine-track discs showcasing the trumpet’s reductionist style in a trio setting, the similarities end there.

Recorded in Oakland, Calif. in October 2004, Sperrgut finds Ulher in the company of local bassist Damon Smith and percussionist Martin Blume from Bochum, Germany. The drummer of course, is an old hand at kind of stop-and-go improvisation, with partners like British violinist Philipp Wachsmann, while Smith has extended his interactions past the Bay area to play with Europeans such as German reedist Frank Gratkowski and Wolfgang Fuchs.

Five months later, Nordzucker Ulher is in Berlin with two countrymen. There’s cellist Michael Maierhof, another Hamburg resident, who usually composes spatial music, and Berlin-based alto saxophonist Lars Scherzberg, who not only plays with Europeans like Italian pianist Alberto Braida and Fuchs, but has a long-time affiliation with Brooklyn-based drummer Jeff Arnal.

With both CDs slotted firmly in a minimalist grove, it’s hard to choose one over the other. Nordzucker may have a slight edge however, since as a semi-working group, the players are much more familiar with one another. During the course of the related tracks they’re able to expose this-side-of-inaudible timbres as well as sudden voluble trills.

Nowhere on either of the discs is there an attempt to set up a soloist-rhythm section hierarchy, with Maierhof and Smith contributing as many percussive impulses as Blume’s drum kit. While Blume’s polyrhythmic showing includes motifs that directly relate to Kenny Clarke’s Bop cymbal pulses, he’d much rather draw a drum stick across his ride cymbal or detach it to let it vibrate in the air. Concurrently he ranges all over his kit, highlighting flams and ruffs from his snares and toms, leaning into dark pounding from his bass drum, scattering bounces and rebounds, and ringing small bells.

For his part Smith’s output includes blunt string pummeling and slapped staccato lines, as well as wooden thumps and bumps. There are extended shuffle bowing passages in the bull fiddle’s lowest register and sul tasto squeaks that replicate Ulher’s valve straining.

Never brassy, her collection of tubes, bell and valve maneuvering is less than understated, consisting in the main of spittle-engorged bubbling, chromatic tongue- stopping, rubato spetrofluctuation, throat growls and shakes. Midway through the CD, it sounds as if she’s whispering crabby nonsense syllables straight through her bell. Infrequently underemphasized wah wahs and tongue pops arise, making it seem as if she’s creating like an uneasy alliance between the style of Don Cherry and a military bugler’s mess call – although the bulk of her output is linear.

This horizontal improvising carries on to the other disc, with Scherzberg’s saxophone using body tube resonation and tongue slaps to meet Ulher’s contrapuntal twitters part way. When sul ponticello sweeps from Maierhof’s cello joins, it’s almost as if the timbres from all three are arising from one organism.

Role transference is rife here as well. Commonly the cellist’s spiccato pops and grainy percussive slaps serve as the pedal-point fulcrum on which the horns’ improvisations balance. Yet one variation finds the trumpeter expelling a pitch that resembles and almost replicates percussion. Glottal punctuation from the saxophonist sporadically performs the same function.

Nestled among the prolonged silences is an acknowledgement that polyphonic flanges created by the horns come from metallic instruments. This cumulative friction binds the rubato slaps, pops and spits into heavy pressured reverberations. This sibilant power is one of the few aural entities that sets Sperrgut apart from Nordzucker. As examples of exploratory modern improvisation, however, both deserve attention.

Ken Waxman,

Orynx - Improv and Sounds

Faisant suite à l'exceptionnel trio PUT de Birgit Uhler avec Roger Turner et le contrebassiste Ulrich Phillipp (Umlaut Nurnichtnur), sperrgut est une rencontre vive du tandem Damon Smith et Martin Blume avec LA trompettiste de la scène improvisée européenne. Cet enregistrement d'un concert de 2004 nous laisse entendre le moindre détail du jeu des improvisateurs. Birgit Uhler favorise les morceaux courts et concentrés, comme dans ce Umlaut et son duo avec la chanteuse Ute Wassermann (Kuntstoff -- Creative Sources). Curieusement, chaque morceau est titré par des mesures de volume comme s'il s'agissait de mesures de cadres pour chaque tableau sonique. Côté pochette comme toujours avec notre trompettiste de Hambourg, nous avons droit à un élégant gribouillage sur polaroïd. Je recommande ce cédé car il est sans doute son album le plus accessible et un des meilleurs qu'elle ait produit. Martin Blume est excellent dans l'art du dialogue et sa frappe caractéristique est particulièrement variée. Elle est immédiatement reconnaissable par sa qualité boisée et son jeu très fin sur les cymbales et accessoires métalliques. Damon Smith est un contrebassiste sensible et inspiré qui laisse vibrer l'instrument de manière particulièrement adéquate pour un tel trio. Les deux hommes laissent le champ sonore complètement ouvert aux introspections de la trompettiste et aux infinies nuances de son jeu. J'avais déjà chroniqué très positivement les albums de BU pour Creative Sources. Parmi eux, Scatter est un remarquable et audacieux solo de trompette. Sperrgut est donc un disque excellent (super gut !), mais rien là ne nous prépare à la claque magistrale reçue à l'écoute de Umlaut par le trio PUT, mentionné plus haut. (Umlaut / 2000 - Nurnichtnur 1000425). On sait qu'une partie des improvisateurs allumés engagés actuellement dans un renouvellement de l'improvisation libre par des voies plus minimalistes tient ce « style » de musique improvisée pour dépassé ou daté, comme pouvait nous sembler le devenir le « free jazz » à l'époque nous nous essayions à devenir « non-idiomatiques » (!). On pourrait mettre beaucoup au défi de jouer avec autant de précision. C'est absolument renversant. On a là le meilleur de Roger Turner et Ulrich Philipp montre qu'il est un contrebassiste beaucoup trop sous-estimé. Son feeling à l'archet est absolument unique. Il vaut parfois mieux faire un retour en arrière de quelques années pour découvrir un joyau passé inaperçu que de se précipiter sur les nouveautés recensées par le site de Peter Stubley. Une musique collective avec absence d'ego et une invention surprenante. J'adore car il y a une qualité unique dans cette musique que vous ne trouverez que dans ce disque. Jimmy Giuffre enregistra en juin 55, un album génial : « Tangents in Jazz ». Ici, on a affaire à « Tangents in Free Improvisation ». A découvrir absolument.

Jean-Michel van Schouwburg,

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