Sifting Stars, the eighth album from Matt Ulery, finds the prolific bassist in the company of a large ensemble, aptly named the Sifting Stars Studio Orchestra. Anchored by pianist Rob Clearfield, a significant voice in Ulery’s music over the past decade (and labelmate; his “Wherever You’re Starting From” was released on Woolgathering earlier this year), Sifting Stars is an art-song epic of long form song structures that is at once beautiful and haunting. Says Ulery of Sifting Stars:
“I tend to write emotionally. That is to say, when I reach in to the abstract space of musical possibilities, the tiny bit I can capture, I tend to let these transient melodies/rhythms and subsequent harmonies, increasingly familiar somehow, guide me through the most natural dynamic and flow of energy from event to event. These fragile moments, subtle and monumental, occupy long form song structures in Sifting Stars.
This music and lyrics are concerned with fantasy and redemption, and Ulery, in his own words, exploited every opportunity to coax the most lush and expressive motion. “While this collection of music is perhaps stylistically furthest away from my jazz informed roots than in previous work, with this classical instrumentation and atmosphere, brimming with romantic gestures, and it’s mostly through-composed nature, I feel that much of the harmonic and rhythmic palettes still reflects my relationship with jazz and new music through a certain rhythmic aesthetic, emotional intent, and vibe,” he says.
The opening piece, “The Remanent of Everything,” was originally commissioned and performed by the Brazos Valley Symphony Orchestra in 2017. Using this opportunity to his advantage, he created a series of more music- the orchestral art songs “Pictures in Grey,” “I’m So Shallow,” and “The Prairie is a Rolling Ocean.” The first two tracks, scored for full symphonic orchestra, include members of the Grammy-award winning ensemble Eighth Blackbird as well as singing by Grazyna Auguscik, one of Ulery’s long-time collaborators. For the following two, Ulery leaves out the strings, adds more brass to the orchestra and features singing by Katie Ernst (bassist/composer/vocalist of Twin Talk). Clearfield is featured here in his usual brilliance, especially on “The Prairie…” where he performs a particularly thoughtful and elegant improvised piano solo woven into the orchestration. The finale of Sifting Stars is “Ida,” a multi-movement work for brass quintet inspired by the Ivan Albright painting, Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida, on view at the Art Institute in Chicago. “Ida” was originally commissioned and performed by Axiom Brass (also heard now on this recording) in 2017. “Brass is a deep breath. In this fantasy score, I imagined what Ida was thinking and feeling,” says Ulery, “The painting, extremely detailed and grotesque, inspired me to explore some of the emotions in the subject rather than to try and emulate the scrupulousness.”
In writing for these ensembles of established instrumentation, Ulery experimented with new idioms and sonic possibilities. “And as usual, I’m utilizing the album medium to produce this music for studio orchestra in Sifting Stars, attempting to put something beautiful and fanciful out into the world.”
DEE DEE MCNEIL
"I discover, from the written word, Ulery is also a prolific poet, as well as gifted composer. While listening I think, this music would make a dynamic motion picture soundtrack." Read the full review here.
"A set of well crafted tunes that swing, with some great solo work across of players." Read the full review here.
DEE DEE MCNEIL
"It’s a compelling and creative album that mixes styles like a thick stew, baked in a modern jazz pie crust and seasoned generously with classical technique." Read the full review here.
"Nationally renowned Milwaukee trumpeter Russ Johnson’s quartet plumbs his own creative/compositional resources in “Headlands Suite.” Recalling funky, electric-period Miles Davis, the recording offers segues rather than track pauses. The voyage befits Johnson’s natural realm along jazz’s outer reaches." Read the full review here.
GEORGE W. HARRIS
"Impressively mature and thoughtfully romantic." Read the full review here.
BIRD IS THE WORM
"There’s always been a big sound to the compositions of Matt Ulery." Read the full review here.
"...his fulsome gifts as a composer, melodicist, and arranger are clearly evidenced by this magnificent recording." Read the full review here.
"The mystical quality of Chicago bassist-composer Ulery’s music never fails to cast its spell, regardless of the size or character of the ensemble in question." Read the full Best of 2018 feature here.
"Ulery's gifts as a composer, melodicist, and arranger are clearly evidenced by this magnificent recording." Read Best of Textura 2018 here.
RICHARD B. KAMINS
"This is an album for a cold morning as the sun rises or late in the evening when the house is quiet and the streets are still. Give this music time and you will be moved." Read the full review here.
"The composition and orchestration (for the large ensemble and the quintet) are beautifully worked out and the whole is a very impressive change of musical style for Ulery." Read the full review here.
"As a teacher, performer and writer, his reach across different musical communities informs his stunning new disc, Sifting Stars." Read the full feature here.