Russ Johnson: Headlands
Matt Ulery: Sifting Stars
Bassist and composer Matt Ulery’s a proud ambassador for Chicago’s ever-vital jazz scene, yet Sifting Stars, his eighth as a bandleader since his 2008 debut, is hardly a jazz recording in the conventional sense; in fact, a listener coming to his music for the first time might be shocked by how dramatically it departs from standard jazz practice. Issued on his own Woolgathering Records, Sifting Stars presents two works, the first a gorgeous quartet of chamber orchestra art songs, three of them vocal-based, and the second a suite performed by the Chicago-based quintet Axiom Brass; as if designed to accentuate Ulery the composer, he doesn’t appear on the latter, though he does, along with longtime pianist partner Rob Clearfield, play on the orchestral material as a member of the eighteen-piece Sifting Stars Orchestra (which also includes members of Eighth Blackbird).
Those, on the other hand, who’ve been following Ulery’s career and absorbing his discography will hear Sifting Stars, recorded in Chicago during 2018 and produced by the composer, as a logical next chapter. Ambitious earlier releases such as 2012’s By a Little Light and 2016’s Festival showed him working with large canvases, the choice not a matter of self-indulgence but simply because the music as conceived demanded such resources. As presented on the new album, Ulery’s irony-free music isn’t shy about courting beauty; it’s authentic music, in other words, whose integrity matches that of its creator.
The haunting title composition augments double bassist Ulery, Clearfield (whose own fine solo release, Wherever You’re Starting From, appeared on Woolgathering in early 2018), percussionist Michael Caskey, and singers Grazyna Auguscik (on the first two songs) and Katie Ernst (on the third) with four string players, four woodwinds, and five horns. Luscious and romantic, Ulery’s material advances through multiple episodes, some gentle and intimate and others soaring and monumental. There’s a strong sensual dimension that the singing naturally imparts but the orchestral playing does, too. While Clearfield is often featured as an improvisor, the composition largely opts for formal notation. That said, Ulery’s jazz sensibility informs the material, and consequently it would be more accurate to characterize the material as art songs rather than classical music per se. On the lyrics front (which, by Ulery’s admission, have to do with “fantasy and redemption”), the texts convey their meanings allusively, their effects impressionistic and suggestive more than direct.
The dramatic first part, “The Remanent of Everything,” instantly captivates with ravishing melodies, lilting rhythms, and the lovely blending of Auguscik’s voice with the orchestra. Ulery makes full use of the potential the latter offers, with strings, woodwinds, and horns generating a panoramic backdrop for the vocalist to emote against. He adds unison vocal backing to Auguscik for the descending melodic lines in “Pictures in Grey,” whose epic reach matches the opener for drama and beauty. With strings sitting out and a restrained Ernst on vocals, the sometimes dirge-like “I’m So Shallow” feels even more ballad-like in its stripped-down design, though moments do arise where the ensemble swells and the potential for orchestral colour exploited. The concluding movement, “The Prairie is a Rolling Ocean,” puts an elegant and ruminative Clearfield front and center, ostensibly turning the part into a mini-piano concerto.
In focusing exclusively on brass timbres, IDA, the six-movement work commissioned by Axiom Brass in 2017 and inspired by Ivan Albright’s Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida painting, provides a satisfying contrast to the title setting, though it doesn’t admittedly pack as strong an emotional punch as the vocal settings. That said, trumpeters Dorival Puccini and Kris Hammond, French hornist Melanie Erena Kjellsen, trombonist Mary Tyler, and tubaist Kevin Harrison deliver a splendid performance. By turns wistful and reflective, the composer in this case sought to translate into musical form his imagining of Ida’s thoughts and feelings. Ulery’s said of Sifting Stars that he aspired “to put something beautiful and fanciful out into the world.” Certainly he’s accomplished that, as his fulsome gifts as a composer, melodicist, and arranger are clearly evidenced by this magnificent recording.
Anyone wanting to sample his talents as a double bassist will find it in ample supply on Headlands, the second Woolgathering release by trumpeter Russ Johnson and his fourth as a leader. Recorded live at the Hungry Brain in Chicago, the material exudes a raw, visceral quality far removed from the polish and control of Sifting Stars. Besides the playing, one of the most satisfying things about Headlands is its structural design, with solo improvised parts interspersed amongst six group compositions and the title piece operating as a framing theme for the set; consequently, the ample pleasures afforded by witnessing the interplay Johnson, Clearfield, Ulery, and drummer Jon Deitemyer is enhanced by hearing each play unaccompanied.
The project originated out of a 2015 commission to premiere a new band and material for the Hyde Park Jazz Festival in Chicago, the twelve-movement suite Headlands the result. Worked purposefully into its design is flexibility, such that the suite can be created anew every time it’s performed, and therefore the set as documented represents but one iteration of a potentially unlimited number. In creating a work where an overall form functions both as foundation and improvising springboard, Johnson’s created a satisfying vehicle for group interplay and individual expression.
The title track introduces the album with a ceremonial fanfare that quickly segues into “Serpent Kane” whose faster Ulvery-led pulse Clearfield (on electric keyboard), Johnson, and Deitemyer quickly dig into, the music sprawling yet retaining coherence despite the freeform elasticity of the attack. Johnson drapes brash and confident lines across the mutating backdrop his responsive cohorts fashion, after which the first spotlight appears, an agile turn by the leader that fluctuates between staccato bursts, lithe runs, and reflective musings. The quiet “Fjord” calls forth a delicate, lyrical performance from the four that leaves lots of open space, with grounding chords by Clearfield freeing Deitemyer to play unrestrictedly. Adding to the recording’s appeal, transitions between the quartet performances and the solo spots occur fluidly, with each section easing seamlessly into the other (of course, solos occur plentifully during the group tracks, too).
Johnson’s playing extends from tender to boisterous, contrasts that are reflected in the set-list, making for a consistently engaging presentation. You might find yourself being reminded during the particularly volatile passages in “Mons Calpe” of Miles’ “Pharaoh’s Dance” (and the like) when the horn-and-electric piano combination evokes that adventurous period, especially when the others replicate the freewheeling playing of the earlier ensemble with their own. The versatile Johnson and company draw from many a jazz tradition, however, during the performance, resulting in a modern jazz release that honours the past without being beholden to it. Certainly those fortunate enough to witness the set at the Hungry Brain now have a sterling document to go along with their memory of the event.