For all the contributions that bassist and composer Matt Ulery makes to the Chicago jazz scene—whether via his own music or via platforms he creates—he rarely pats himself on the back. He’s not a gratuitous self-promoter either, preferring to let his music speak for itself. And there’s a lot of it to speak: the brand-new Sifting Stars is Ulery’s eighth album as a bandleader since his debut in 2008. He also plays as a sideman in uncountable groups (ad hoc as well as established), leads weekly jams at the Whistler with drummer Quin Kirchner, and runs his own label, Woolgathering Records.
“I like the idea of keeping things fresh for myself, just so it’s more fun,” Ulery says of the ensembles he leads. “That’s basically it—it’s just for fun. I mean, it’s my job, but it works out. It comes together.” Like most full-time musicians, he has to accept some gigs he’s less than completely passionate about if he wants to make a living, but wherever he can, he conjures up ways to maintain the excitement of the work.
Ulery has divided the music on Sifting Stars (out October 16 via Woolgathering) into two radically different sections, emblematic of his eclectic output. The first four pieces build off the 2016 double album Festival (Woolgathering), specifically its compositions for large ensemble, which combine orchestral structures and big-band sounds with plenty of postbop improvisation. For the large-ensemble pieces on Sifting Stars, Ulery uses a total of 18 musicians (including members of Eighth Blackbird), giving him an even wider range of possible textures and colors, but there’s very little improvising—these are intricate art songs scored for shifting subsets of a symphony. He’s written vocal parts before—on 2012’s By a Little Light, for instance, and 2014’s In the Ivory—and this time he works with two singers, frequent collaborator Grazyna Auguscik and new recording partner Katie Ernst (of Twin Talk). With this dazzlingly diverse palette, Ulery can go in lots of directions: like Ellington, he employs specific instrumental voices in idiosyncratic ways, some of which seem especially surprising in context of modern “third stream” classical-jazz fusion; at other times he adds folk influences, occasionally Balkan but mostly American, including prewar old-time music and relatively contemporary singer-songwriter fare. He paints with these novel colors as an eager artist would, but with restraint and refinement.
The second part of Sifting Stars takes quite a turn: Ulery sits out as a player, handing over his music to Chicago-based quintet Axiom Brass. The members of Axiom play a multipart suite inspired by an Ivan Albright painting in the Art Institute’s collection, Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida—Ulery tried to imagine what the woman in the picture might be thinking and feeling. The suite has a distinct folk flavor, like much of Ulery’s recent music, but it’s less straightforwardly song-oriented and hummable. The harmonies are a little unexpected from a traditional brass quintet, but they’re entirely in character for Ulery—as is the music’s nearly constant atmosphere of nostalgia and introspection. “In writing for these ensembles of established instrumentation, I’m experimenting with new idioms and sonic possibilities,” Ulery writes of Sifting Stars on his website.
Ulery experiments within tradition not just in his own music but also by finding new ways to express his love for standards. Most Monday nights for the past year, he and Kirchner have led a jam at the Whistler, striving to create a space where musicians can feel secure in taking untested approaches to tried-and-true songs. The two of them typically begin by playing a set with a guest, then open the session to anybody who’s come prepared to play standards (at some point, if there are enough musicians on hand, both leaders might leave the stage). It’s a welcoming and well-loved event, attracting up-and-comers already on the scene as well as brand-new players still in school—and notably, a fair number of folks show up just to listen. The jam runs organically, and it owes its relaxed feeling to the guidance of Ulery and Kirchner, who help decide who plays and step in when needed.
Ulery also uses Woolgathering Records to nurture a community—it reflects his values as an artist, allowing him to innovate and follow his instincts with no commercial pressure. Launched to release Festival, the label has grown alongside Ulery’s music, so that now he can put out his friends’ records too. Pianist Rob Clearfield (who’s been on every one of Ulery’s albums) had Woolgathering’s first non-Ulery release, the February 2018 solo record Wherever You’re Starting From, and he’s now been joined by trumpeter Russ Johnson (Headlands) and saxophonist Tim Haldeman (Open Water as a Child), whose records both came out the same day as Sifting Stars.
“It felt good to try to help my friends release their music when it otherwise might not happen as easily,” Ulery says. The jazz scene in Chicago, if not the whole midwest, is usually a mutually supportive community, with artists encouraging one another and working almost as hard on their colleagues’ creations as on their own.
Ulery embodies that spirit, and it’s especially easy to see the results when you watch him play. On September 28 at Constellation, he performed with his By a Little Light ensemble, and it was hard to miss how much each musician cared about the music and the other players—not just in the quality of their performances but also in their solicitous gestures to one another, their frequent eye contact, their smiles. This warmth is the norm in Chicago jazz today—people often work together just because they enjoy it.
Lots of midwestern jazz musicians eventually move to New York or Los Angeles to angle for bigger platforms or fresh contexts, but Ulery has spent his whole career based in Chicago and isn’t going anywhere. He doesn’t feel like he needs to move to get a new perspective, because there are so many shifting, overlapping communities here already. “I’ve gotten so much back from living here,” he says. “I see myself making an effort to keep engaging different scenes—as a bass player and as a bandleader, a person that writes music—so that I can embrace who’s coming, who’s here.”
Ulery celebrates the release of Sifting Stars at the Green Mill on Friday and Saturday, October 19 and 20. He couldn’t duplicate the album’s instrumentation, so he’s assembled a new ten-piece group for the shows: it combines a quintet of Ulery regulars (himself on bass, Clearfield on piano, Johnson on trumpet, Jon Deitemyer on drums, and Geof Bradfield on clarinet) with Ernst on vocals and the Kaia String Quartet (Victoria Moreira and Naomi Culp on violins, Amanda Grimm on viola, and Hope Shepherd DeCelle on cello). They’ll play Sifting Stars material as well as music from other recent Ulery albums.
“The instrumentation/orchestration on the album is logistically challenging to make happen at the Green Mill for six-hour sets, especially because it’s mostly through-composed,” Ulery says. “So I’m taking advantage of this creative limitation to make something fresh for these performances, where we can stretch out on the material when appropriate—I created special new arrangements of all the music on Sifting Stars for this band. I’ve got to keep it interesting, challenging, and new.”