“A thoughtful guitarist and composer.”
The New York Times

Guitarist and composer David Ullmann, born in 1972 and raised in New York City, has recorded three albums as a leader: Hidden (2005), Falling (2011) and Corduroy (2014).

Reviewing Ullmann’s debut album, All About Jazz made an observation – one that has proved increasingly true over his subsequent releases – about how the music could give the listener “a satisfying sense of taking a journey.” And in an Editor’s Pick for the Falling album, DownBeat singled out Ullmann’s guitar playing and sense of musical narrative, opining that “his restrained, tasteful solos display the narrative arc of a veteran storyteller.”

A graduate of the New School jazz program and currently a teacher of guitar and songwriting at John Jay College, Ullmann has performed extensively in and around New York City, from such hallowed venues as CBGB, the Blue Note, Wetlands and the Knitting Factory to current hotspots like the 55 Bar and Barbès. 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’s third album, the new Corduroy (Little Sky Records), resonates with the psychogeography of his youth. In composing the music, the guitarist harked back to the hit TV theme tunes that he grew up on as a child of the 70s. To a lifelong New Yorker like Ullmann, the appeal of these melodies goes beyond their buoyant lyricism; they are imbued with a bittersweet nostalgia that he associates with a bygone Manhattan. He aimed to evoke not the style but the feeling of that music, its addictive melodicism and air of wistfulness. He explains the 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.” Explaining the allure of that 70s feeling, Ullmann adds: “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.”

To bring the music of his mind to life on Corduroy, Ullmann created ingenious arrangements for an octet of New York jazz virtuosos. His 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 subtle sounds of Jim Hall have long been a touchstone for Ullmann as a guitarist, but he looked to another guitar hero for inspiration with the arrangements for this band. “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 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.”

Ullmann’s second album, Falling (Wet Cash Records), featured the guitarist fronting a quintet with Dingman, Wang, Sperrazza and saxophonist Karel Ruzicka Jr.  The acclaim came from far and wide. Philadelphia City Paper praised the 2011 album as “contemplative” and “shimmering,” while Washington City Paper singled out Ullmann and company’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.” About the sessions for Falling, the leader recalls: “I wanted to capture the idea of getting lost within the music – to explore falling into some mood or sound, being temporarily transported. And the musicians were amazing – really capturing that feel I was going for, along with contributing their own ideas. In writing the music, I tried to play with the traditional format of introducing a melody and chord changes and then having soloists improvise over the changes. I created interludes and intros, allowing the soloists to improvise over different sections of the pieces. It was a big development from my first album, with the pieces having more involved structure while still maintaining a melodic quality.

“It can be a challenge to push yourself as a composer in a jazz context – to move away from the usual approaches while still maintaining what one expects from a jazz-influenced piece,” Ullmann continues. “With Falling, I was looking at the forms and structures of traditional jazz to see what I could add to that conversation. There are so many great improvisers who can make a repeating 32-bar form endlessly interesting, but I wanted to focus on shorter solo forms and play with the structures of the improvisation to give the listener something familiar yet evolving. I remember riding over the George Washington Bridge to Bennett Studios in New Jersey and feeling a sense of the challenge that I had set myself. But the four musicians were superb in their realizations of the pieces. Vinnie and Gary play so great together and added a really interesting groove to the music. Karel plays with so much passion, and every note he chose felt like it meant so much. Chris has such a beautiful sound, and I wrote a lot of tricky things for him to perform – which he pulled off wonderfully. I put these guys together just for the record, but we subsequently played as a band many times. They’ve become friends and frequent colleagues.”

Hidden (Wet Cash Records), Ullmann’s 2005 debut album as a leader, received accolades from All About Jazz, which praised its “restless creativity.” The review went on: “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.” Although Ullmann teamed with nine other players for the sessions that yielded Hidden, the core band featured Joe Ashlar (piano and Fender Rhodes), Pedro Giraurdo (bass) and Vin Scialla (drums). About the album, Ullmann says: “Hidden now it sounds to me almost like a mix-tape, a compilation of a few different groups and instrumentations that I was working with at the time. I had been doing a lot of gigs at the Knitting Factory in TriBeCa – an amazing venue, with multiple spaces. I ended up playing in all of them, but the music for Hidden was drawn from weekly gigs in the Tap Bar space. It was a great place to experiment with styles and ideas because the listeners down there would mostly be coming in from shows in one of the other spaces – but still looking to hang out and ready to hear something unexpected.

“Because of the openness in the Knit’s booking policy, there was a lot of different ideas floating around and that really helped shape the music,” Ullmann adds. “I had also been playing with Joe and Vin in another group called Mission: On Mars.  The Mission approach was to incorporate traditional Indian music with some of the electronic grooves that were becoming popular at that time. I loved the way Vin could play drum’n’bass and jungle, and I wanted use those ideas but in a more acoustic setting. The results of that can be heard in songs like ‘Hidden’ and ‘Lorca’ on the album. Hidden also features the tabla, which was another nod to what we had been playing in Mission. There are also a few tracks on the album that feature a horn section. This was part of a second group I had at the time with a friend, the Danish saxophonist René Mogensen. We met while students at New York University, where we were playing avant-garde classical music. But I found that René also had a love for jazz and some interesting and beautiful music that he had written. ‘Where Do We Go’ on Hidden is his piece and one of my favorites. He inspired me to try to develop music more than just a typical lead sheet, as he had backgrounds and introductions written into his charts. I used to joke with him about who would have the most pages for one of his pieces. The instrumentation on the tracks with the horns was part of my inspiration for Corduroy, as I always liked the idea of a small big band. It took until my latest recording to follow up on that.”

One track on Hidden featured a trio with Ullmann alongside percussionist Rex Bennicasa and bassist Rob Thomas for a distinctive take on the standard “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” Ullmann says: “I’ve always loved playing standards, and at that time, I was working a lot on learning the repertoire – but I had also been curious about trying new approaches with those great songs. So for this one, I wanted to capture the mournfulness of the lyric and create an almost meditative feel. I had played with Rex for many years in another group that I had, a band that was more of an experimental rock, King Crimson-type of project. He’s an amazing percussionist and capable of creating so many different sounds from the drum set. Rob, who is better known for his violin playing, is also an incredible bassist. He understood exactly what I was looking for, and I love the mood they created for that piece.”

The liner notes to Hidden compare the experience of the record to flipping through a photo album of life in New York. City life formed Ullmann, as he explains: “Growing up in New York was an amazing experience. I was had so many musical opportunities at a young age that I wasn’t even aware of how lucky I was. I was able to see musicians like Miles Davis, Jimmy Smith and John McLaughlin when I was just a teenager. I used to hang out at Augie’s, now Smoke, and got to see some amazing players developing their skills. My first real guitar teacher was friendly with Pat Martino and gave me his contact to take a lesson with him. So when I was 15-17, I went to his house in Philadelphia a few times and took some lessons with him – some of the most amazing experiences of my life. When I first met him, we went down to his practice room and he played me his famous version of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’ and then let me play his guitar!”

While at the New School, Ullmann studied with guitarists Peter Bernstein, Gene Bertoncini and Vic Juris. He also took classes with drum legend Chico Hamilton while there and studied with pianist Garry Dial both at the New School and afterward. But even before he was able to study with such sage teachers at the college level, he had opportunities to learn from a world of amazing talent in New York City. “I had the chance to study sitar with Amit Chatterjee, an amazing musician who later went on to become the guitarist for Joe Zawinul,” Ullmann recalls. “And I took tabla lessons with Misha Massud. There was just so much going on here that you could get excited about when I was growing up here. I played with my rock band at CBGB at 1 a.m. on a weeknight when we were all in high school – with our parents in the crowd. There was so much culture everywhere and so many amazing people who would share it with you. Those experiences gave me an appreciation for different people and their cultural traditions, an openness to how many wonderful things there are in the world to be curious about. 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.”

Photo by Vincent Soyez