A Light Left On: Imprint by the Julia Hulsmann Trio

By Daniel Garrett

Julia Hulsmann Trio, Imprint
Recording Engineer: Peer Espen Ursfjord
Produced by Manfred Eicher
ECM, 2011

Pianist Julia Hulsmann, with double-bassist Marc Muellbauer and drummer Heinrich Kobberling, has given birth to Imprint, a creative work of elegance, intellect, and spirit; a work of surprising force and deep but supple order. Imprint was recorded in Oslo, Norway, for Munich’s ECM, one of the great music companies: ECM, which celebrated its fortieth anniversary a few years ago, has produced the music of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Carla Bley, Anouar Brahem, Chick Corea, Jan Garbarek, Charlie Haden, Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, Meredith Monk, Arvo Part, Cassandra Wilson, and Nana Vasconcelos, among its hundreds and hundreds of recordings. Immediately, in Imprint’s composition “Rond Point,” written by Julia Hulsmann, one perceives a contemplative freedom, in the exploratory speculation of the piano notes, broad and welcoming bass-plucking, and seemingly gentle brush on the drums. The energy and patter of Hulsmann’s “Grand Canyon” create an easy density, ringing and rippling. Unfortunately, though I have seen films and photographs of the Grand Canyon, I have not visited it, and cannot say if the beauty of the piece replicates what is found there. However, I am reminded of something I thought long ago—that knowledge and wonder begin in one’s own country, but one does not have to be limited to that.

It is not hard to imagine the atmosphere in a room, a conversation, in “A Light Left On.” I find myself asking whether artists invest significant warmth in music as it is often lacking, when it matters, in the world. Imprint, which features seven of Julia Hulsmann’s compositions, certainly has more than one kind of warmth, from the dark, heavy notes in “Juni” to the eloquent intensity and tenderness of Heinrich Kobberling’s “Storm in a Teacup,” to Hulsmann’s “(Go and Open) The Door,” which demonstrates a gift for melody, a quickly perceptible gift, a gift many musicians seem to have lost—or never to have been given. In “(Go and Open) The Door” rhythms create tension and texture, making what might have been dismissed as mere charm—as if charm in art were not an accomplishment—into something more. How can three people, a pianist, a bassist, and a drummer, sound like a larger group? It is instructive: so much of what is heard depends on an ability to listen.

The Julia Hulsmann Trio, which performs in cities such as Berlin, Koln, Munich, Wien, and Zurich, might be said to be one of the fruits of 1968, with Julia Hulsmann and Marc Muellbauer both born that year, and Heinrich Kobberling born one year before. How many people expected elegance of that tumultuous year? Hulsmann, born in Bonn, began playing piano as a girl, when she was eleven, and started her first musical group about five years later, eventually moving to Berlin and playing in a Berlin jazz orchestra. The London-born Muellbauer has played European classical music with United Berlin, and is a member of another group, Kaleidoscope, and he is a teacher of the double-bass in a Berlin academy; and Kobberling, born in Bad Arolsen, has worked with Ernie Watts and Aki Takase and is an established jazz recording sessions’ man, and he teaches in a Leipzig conservatory. Obviously, a strong individual is like a single culture, and three strong individuals together are greater still: a civilization.

On Imprint, the old Austrian-German show song “Kauf dir einen bunten Luftballoon” (which can be translated into “Buy You a Colorful Balloon”) by Profes and Pinelli, has a sparkling, innocent quality, and is followed by a very different song, Marc Muellbauer’s “Ritual,” which sounds less like a score for a formal ritual than an enlivening dance, with a very contemporary aspect, a thickening rhythm, and a raised volume. “Ritual” is one of the distinctive gems in the collection, though Julia Hulsmann’s “Lulu’s Paradise” and Marc Muellbauer’s “Ulmenwall,” and all the others are pleasing too. Heinrich Kobberling’s “Zahlen bitte” is fast to the point of urgent, and somber notes are brought in, and the song feels like a declarative statement more than a fleeting impression; and it cannot be confused for anything but jazz. It makes the concluding tribute to Thelonious Monk, “Who’s Next,” written by Hulsmann, a sweet testament to musical history, which has been teacher rather than warden.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. “There are always musicians, established and new, whose work is worth exploring, such as Adele, Amede Ardoin, Erykah Badu, Measha Brueggergosman, Bo Diddley, Roberta Flack, Fleet Foxes, Nnenna Freelon, Slim Harpo, Vijay Iyer, Lyrics Born, Bob Marley, Jason Moran, Jessye Norman, Eric Reed, Josh Ritter, Jill Scott, Tina Turner, Dionne Warwick, and Yeasayer. The list grows longer, not shorter,” says Daniel Garrett, who has been interested in international music, literature, and film for many years and wrote about international film for Offscreen and Cinetext, and originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and social issues, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader.” He has been writing a novel, A Stranger on Earth.

Contact: dgarrett31@hotmail or D.Garrett.Writer@gmail.com