By: Ron Schepper, Textura
As a choice of album title (and band name), Delicate Charms is certainly credible, but perhaps an even better one for double bassist Matt Ulery’s latest would be the title of its third track: “Mellisonant,” whose meaning ‘pleasing to the ear’ succinctly summarizes the experience of listening to the recording. Issued on the Chicagoan’s Woolgathering Records, Delicate Charms, his ninth album as a bandleader, is quintessential Ulery, packed as it is with ravishing melodies, intricate compositional structures, and exemplary performances. Helping to bring the material to fruition are musicians whose names will be familiar to followers of his career and the Chicago scene: Greg Ward on alto saxophone, Zach Brock on violin, Rob Clearfield on piano, and Quin Kirchner on drums. Do a quick scan of the bassist’s discography and you’ll see those names cropping up repeatedly in the personnel listings.
A fine follow-up to Ulery’s earlier 2019 release Wonderment (a trio set with Brock and drummer Jon Deitemyer) and 2018’s Sifting Stars (a wondrous orchestral art songs collection), Delicate Charms is distinguished by inspired ensemble playing and the front-line pairing of alto sax and violin. The five participants elevate the leader’s compositions with playing that’s intense, engaged, and energized. However complex an Ulery composition is, its mellifluous melodicism ensures it communicates with immediacy.
Exemplifying his propensity for ambitious large-scale pieces, the opening “Coping” sequences six uninterrupted parts into a largely through-composed, thirteen-minute suite. Written apparently during a time when health issues were challenging family members within the bassist’s circle, the piece impresses as both a dynamic creative expression and cathartic release. Background details aside, the material overflows with Ulery’s melodic sensibility, from melancholy to celebratory. Whether indulging in counterpoint or sharing a unison line, Brock and Ward excel, their voices superb conduits for the composer’s artistry. Emphasizing a wistful chamber quality in its opening five minutes, “Coping” grows animated thereafter, the rhythm section providing a powerful springboard for the two to emote against. With Kirchner a constant swirl of invention and Clearfield unspooling elegant lines, it’s Ulery’s unerring pulse that holds the elements together as the players advance through the music’s many twists and turns.
His pretty side comes to the fore for “The Effortless Enchantment,” the tune’s chamber leanings offset by the drive with which the material’s delivered. As, yes, delicately as the quintet can play, it’s also capable of generating heat, as the soaring performance here demonstrates. “Mellisonant” follows a lovely strings-only intro featuring Brock and Ulery with characteristically stellar soloing by the violinist and Ward. Throughout the recording, the pair’s fluid, singing lines offer repeated reminders of how fortunate the bassist is to have such extraordinarily gifted and incisive talents by his side. As an accompanist or soloist (consider his masterful contributions to the stately “October” and his intro to the entrancing closer “Nerve”), Clearfield likewise shows himself to be critical to the mix. As strong as the three are, all five dig into the seven pieces on this elegant, hour-long set with utter conviction.
There’s nothing, it seems, the bassist can’t do. Whether commanding the stage with this new quintet or guiding a larger ensemble through its paces, be it the Sifting Stars Orchestra, Loom Large, or By a Little Light Ensemble, everything Ulery does is branded with his personal signature and melodic sensibility. In all likelihood, longtime admirers will embrace Delicate Charms as fervently as they have others in his discography.