by Richard Kamins, Step Tempest

Bassist, arranger, and composer Matt Ulery, whose trio of critically acclaimed albums of Greenleaf music (issued from 2012-14) contained an often dazzling array of styles and musicians, continues that trend with his new album, “festival” (Woolgathering Records). Released on his own label, the recording is credited to Matt Ulery’s Loom / Large and features two different ensembles, one his regular quintet (Loom), the other a 14-piece orchestra (Large, including violin soloist Zach Brock), performing three distinct programs.

The album opens with the only non-original composition on the album, an orchestral reading of Jimmy Rowles’ classic “The Peacocks.” Ulery’s classy arrangement features Brock playing the melody and the major solo.  Ulery takes a short solo over the easy brush work of drummerJon Deitmeyer (with the trombones adding a quiet chorus) before pianist Rob Clearfield steps out front for a moment before the Orchestra returns to the main melody. Large also appears on the following track, “Hubble“, a wondrous journey through several changes in dynamics that also has intelligent use of the strings, reeds and brass, sending out melodic signals throughout the universe of the song.  The forceful 4/4 rhythm, the quiet interludes, strong solos from Clearfield and Brock, and the excellent arrangements for the sections makes this such an impressive work.

The remaining 13 tracks feature the bassist’s quintet performing two quite different programs.  Besides Deitmeyer and Clearfield, Loom includes the splendid trumpeter Russ Johnson and clarinet work ofGeof Bradfield. On the first six tracks, the ensemble dances and instrumentally sings its way through Ulery’s melodic repertoire.  It’s absorbing to hear  the emotionally powerful “A Family,  A Fair” with its rippling piano solo and the fascinating dialogue between the trumpet and clarinet near the end.  Listen to how Ulery employs all five “voices” on “Canopy“, how the bass and drums also work the melody into their playing and how Clearfield’s elemental piano chords holds the piece together.   Johnson’s work is exemplary throughout, his clear, crisp, articulation ands how he glides through the registers on pieces such as “Middle West” (with the bass clarinet as counterpoint and support) plus his forceful yet flowing journey through “Ecliptic.”

The last five tracks are shorter, no less melodic, but with a distinct Americana feel.  Clearfield moves to pump organ while Ulery moves to tuba and adds his voice to “The Silence is Holding.” There is a bit of Salvation Army Band as if imagined by Robbie Robertson feel to these tracks yet they have genuine power, often generous melodies and a gentle swing.  Johnson’s growling trumpet enlivens “Horseshoe” while he and Bradfield (bass clarinet) have a fanciful dialogue through “Constituent.”  Ulery gets to play some impressive bottom on the latter over the martial drumming of Dietmeyer.  The final track, “Slow It Down“, sounds like a cross between “Edelweiss” (from “The Sound of Music“) and a Shaker hymn.  It’s a lovely, heartfelt, way to close this wide-ranging program, a gentle kiss on the cheek before you enter dreamland (or, perhaps, exit a land of dreams.)

Matt Ulery has created his own sound, hearing a confluence of sounds and styles unlike any contemporary composer.  It strikes this listener a decade and seven albums into his career that melody is his guiding principal and this his instruments are the people such as Jon Deitmeyer, Rob Clearfierld, Zach Brock, eighth blackbird, Marquis Hill (trumpet), Russ Johnson, and others who he interpret his wondrous messages.  “festival” is a treat, three albums on one disc, 74+ minutes, and well worth your time and attention.

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