Photographer: Vincent Soyez
Each step that guitarist and composer David Ullmann has taken along his musical path has been an unpredictable one. Reinvention has been the key to each new release; his music thrives on surprising combinations of electric and acoustic sounds as well as left-field additions like tabla and sitar.
Such inventive thinking has led the New York Times to call Ullmann “a thoughtful guitarist and composer,” while All About Jazz has praised his ability to provide listeners with “a satisfying sense of taking a journey.”
On his 2005 debut, Hidden, the New York City native kept listeners off balance with an eclectic mix of influences from modern jazz and jam band rock to funk, soul and country balladry. His follow-up, Falling (2011), further pulled the rug out with a guitar/vibes/sax frontline that aimed for a free-fall feeling with dreamy atmospherics and gentle but off-kilter angularity.
Ullmann’s latest release, Corduroy (2014), expanded the band to an octet and drew inspiration from a wholly unexpected source: the brassy, memorable theme songs from Ullmann’s ‘70s childhood. The result was simultaneously fresh and nostalgic, with exhilarating playing as the ensemble navigated the music’s narrative twists and turns.
On his forthcoming album Sometime, Ullmann takes the concept of reinvention and applies it to his own catalogue. Using an unreleased organ trio date as a leaping-off point, Ullmann fleshed out the music with a larger ensemble of collaborators, taking what was a lively soul-jazz outing into strange and exciting new territory with the addition of synths, sitar, mandolin, vibes, horns and percussion.
Unlike many of his peers on the jazz scene, Ullmann didn’t undertake an odyssey to reach the jazz mecca of New York City. He was born and raised in the metropolis, and its diverse soundscape has certainly influenced his wide-spectrum music. He discovered the guitar through legendary classic rock bands like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, and absorbed those artists’ open-eared approach.
The improvisational nature of jazz drew Ullmann out of the rock world, as did the profound experience of taking lessons at the Philadelphia home of legendary guitarist Pat Martino. Ullmann studied more formally at the acclaimed jazz program at the New School, where his teachers included such six-string masters as Peter Bernstein, Gene Bertoncini and Vic Juris and pianist Garry Dial. The Indian music influences that continue to permeate his music were sparked by studies of the tabla with Misha Massud and the sitar with future Joe Zawinul guitarist Amit Chatterjee.
He went on to earn his Master’s Degree at NYU, where he was able to take private lessons with such greats as guitarists Wayne Krantz, Brad Shepik and Adam Rogers, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Ari Hoenig. He also enjoyed the opportunity to work in the ensembles of jazz legends Joe Lovano and John Scofield, performing and recording with both. During this time Ullmann was a member of the winning group in the 2018 Costa Rica Promising Artist Series.
Since graduating, Ullmann has passed those formative lessons on and has taught guitar and songwriting at John Jay College as well as guitar at NYU , while maintaining an active performing schedule that has taken him to such hallowed venues as CBGB, the Blue Note, Wetlands and the Knitting Factory as well as current hotspots like the 55 Bar and Barbès.
It’s when writing and playing his own original music that Ullmann’s originality truly shines, however. Taking his cue from earwig theme songs like the ones that opened The Rockford Files, M*A*S*H, Taxi or Barney Miller, Ullmann devised the music on Corduroy as a prime time line-up of imagined vintage television. It’s easy to envision the car chases and shoot-outs that might accompany the music realized by the virtuosic octet, which features Kirk Knuffke (cornet), Brian Drye (trombone), Mike McGinnis (clarinets), Loren Stillman (alto saxophone), Chris Dingman (vibraphone), Gary Wang (double-bass) and Vinnie Sperrazza (drums). At the same time, the emotional immediacy of important influences like Jim Hall and Bill Frisell is never obscured. Bird is the Worm called the album “one of the more melodically rich albums [of] 2014,” while DownBeat’s Ken Micallef applauded the music for accomplishing a rare distinction: “jazz as easily enjoyable as a great pop tune.”
Dingman, Wang, Sperrazza and saxophonist Karel Ruzicka joined Ullmann on his previous album, Falling, which the composer intended “to capture the idea of getting lost within the music – to explore falling into some mood or sound, being temporarily transported.” His success is attested to by the widespread praise the album received: Philadelphia City Paper called it “contemplative” and “shimmering,” while Washington City Paper singled out the ensemble’s ability to “float with grace.” Something Else! pointed to the “forward-minded compositions,” and Critical Jazz marveled over the album’s “intense waves of creativity.”
Those elements were already evident on Ullmann’s acclaimed debut, Hidden. The band for that album consisted of longtime collaborators, including pianist/keyboardist Joe Ashlar and drummer Vin Scialla, both of whom also played with Ullmann in the band Mission: On Mars. All About Jazz admired the album’s “restless creativity,” saying that “each track builds on the next and works to keep the listener on guard and engaged.”
Ullmann’s conceptual vision applies to his captivating playing as well as his compositions. DownBeat hailed his thoughtful work on Falling, saying “his restrained, tasteful solos display the narrative arc of a veteran storyteller.” He’s carried that cinematic sense onto the actual big screen as well, composing music for several feature films and documentaries. He’s formed an ongoing collaboration with filmmaker D.W. Young, scoring his narrative feature The Happy House and the documentary A Hole in the Fence. He will also compose the music for the forthcoming The Booksellers, a compelling peek into the world of New York’s rare book collectors.
Wherever Ullmann’s path leads next, the only sure thing is that it won’t be in an obvious direction. “There are so many wonderful things in the world to be curious about,” he sums up. “That’s what I try to bring to my music-making no matter what the project is – openness, curiosity and a sense of possibility in collaboration and creativity.”