By: Chris Baber, JazzViews
MATT ULERY – Sifting Stars
Woolgathering Records: WR005
Sifting Stars Orchestra – Matt Ulery: double bass, voice; Rob Clearfield: piano; Michael Caskey: percussion; Grazyna Auguseik, Katie Ernst: voice; Yvonne Lam, Jeff Yang: violins; Aurelius Pederzoli: violas; Nick Photinos: cellos; Michael Maccaderri: clarinets; Nathalie Joachim: flutes; Ben Roidl-Ward: bassoons; Andrew Nogal: oboes and English horns; Liz Deitmeyer: French horns; James Davis, Chad McCullough: trumpets; Steve Duncan, Chris Shuttleworth: trombones.
Axiom Brass – Dorival Puccini, Kris Hammond: trumpets; Melanie Erena Kjellsen: French horn; Mary Tyler: trombone; Kevin Harrison: tuba.
Recorded in 2018 in Chicago
This is a collection of tunes with cinematic sweep and a tale of ‘fantasy and redemption’. The opening three tracks have lyrics (printed in the sleeve), which are delivered with expressive candour by Auguseik (1,2) and Ernst (3). As with some of the other tunes here, their titles suggest a troubled soul (‘The remnant of everything’ , ‘Pictures in grey’ , ‘I’m so shallow’ , ‘The passage of time can be relentless and unforgiving’ , ‘I have such a clown face’ ). In the liner notes, Ulery says ‘when I reach in to the abstract space of musical possibilities, the tiny bit I can capture, I tend to get these transient melodies / rhythms and subsequent harmonies…’ What he does with the fragments is to construct impressive tapestries of sound that are very atmospheric and make full use of the instruments at Ulery’s disposal, and give each tune a warmth, even with the darkest of lyrics. There is a feeling of French chanson in the ways in which the warmth and darkness combine.
The opening track was commissioned and performed in another context but the subsequent pieces combine into a fully realised cycle of songs for the 16 member Sifting Stars Orchestra (on the first two tracks) and for a reduced ensemble on the last two. Clearfield’s piano emphasises the Romanticism of Ulery’s approach composition, keeping the balance between pathos and drama that the lyrics point to. Following this cycle, there is a six part suite for brass quintet ‘Ida’ (named after the painting ‘and into the world there came a soul called Ida’ by Ivan Albright). This also has had a previous life, as a commission for Axiom Brass, in 2017, who perform it here.
Throughout the two collections presented here, Ulery’s role seems to be very much that of composer, conductor and coordinator; his bass is well in the background, with the occasional arco or plucked accompaniment coming to the fore but mainly allowing the other instruments to create and mark the gently pulsing rhythms of the tunes. 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.
RUSS JOHNSON – Headlands
Woolgathering Records: WR007
Russ Johnson: trumpet; Rob Clearfield: keyboard; Matt Ulery: bass; Jon Deitmeyer: drums
Recorded 30th September 2016 by David Zuchowski at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Frederic March Play Circle
This is an intriguing concept album. The set opens and closes with the slinky bass line of the title track, punctuated with shimmering Fender Rhodes chords. In between these, there is a six part suite, punctuated by ‘transitions’, which are largely solo improvisations from each musician and provide a reflection on the previous piece and a bridge into the next. Throughout the set, Clearfield’s keyboards riff with great creativity and verve, bringing enthusiastic support from the rhythm section of Ulery and Deitmeyer. As you might expect from Johnson’s long (almost quarter century) tenure in New York, there are shifts in style and mood (simply quiet / loud, but also rapid changes of pace) and his trumpet sound echoes some of the greats of the bop era – bright, clear and muscular in tone, but always able to drop into gently limpid phrases when the other instruments drop out. What the music also showcases is the fertile Chicago improvisational scene, with his band-mates relishing the space to improvise not only in the ‘transitions’ but also in the solos and, often, in their support playing.
My impression of Johnson’s approach to composing (on the basis of this CD and from his excellent ‘Still out to lunch’ tribute to Eric Dolphy from a couple of years back) is that he has an enthusiasm for the well turned melody (several of the pieces here, particularly ‘Fjord’  or ‘Kapoj’ , have themes which grip the listener immediately) and a sense of the disjointed rhythm (the final (before the reprise of the title track) piece, ‘Isthmus’  has a drum pattern that sounded simple but was very difficult to tap along to). While the press release suggests that the suite sits somewhere between modern jazz and the avant-garde, I would position it very much in the jazz tradition; it is a set of well crafted tunes that swing, with some great solo work across of players.