During the first decades of its existence, jazz was uniquely American. From London, where Louis Armstrong performed before King George V, to Bangkok, where King Bhumibol Adulyadej became an accomplished improviser, American jazz was admired and imitated, but only a few musicians were able to make original contributions to the art. Like so much else, this all changed in the 1960s, when players in England, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, inspired by the free jazz movement across the Atlantic, took radical steps towards musical independence, searching for means of expression that would reflect their own cultural experiences. While enamored of jazz history, they often broke with historical and generic constraints, seeking inspiration in older jazz forms, in contemporary pop and classical music, and in folk traditions from many places. As their art matured, the European improvisers began to influence new generations in their own countries and in the United States as well.
This feedback and the internationalization of improvised music are well represented in the quartet led by saxophonist/clarinetist/flutist Gebhard Ullmann and trombonist Steve Swell. Both were born in the late fifties, at the cusp of the jazz revolutions, the former in Germany, the latter in New Jersey. Their backgrounds were quite different, but they eventually ended up playing in similar contexts. Swell took the traditional American route: he learned his instrument at school, moved to New York, and ended up as a professional, playing in Broadway pits and traveling big bands, making a good living. Around 1985 he abandoned this lucrative but sterile work and dedicated himself to more creative endeavors. He began to play with like-minded musicians in New York's "downtown scene," centered on the Knitting Factory, and eventually began to lead his own groups, honing his compositional as well as his instrumental techniques.
Ullmann's German career followed a parallel path. After traditional and jazz studies in Hamburg, he moved to Berlin in 1983, just about the same time that Swell came to New York. A
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