Matt Ulery and Zach Brock Team with KAIA String Quartet on Become Giant, New Release out August 26, 2022 via Woolgathering
A work of heartbreaking grandeur, Become Giant—the new release by master composer/bassist Matt Ulery out August 26 on Woolgathering Records—features world-renowned violinist Zach Brock and the brilliant Chicago-based KAIA String Quartet soaring for 36 minutes over a harmonically lush, rhythmically dense, and melodically enchanted musical forest. For bassist-composer Ulery, the deep dive into a chamber music/jazz vortex is not new. Indeed, it’s become a bit of a calling card, as his work—which spans 12 solo albums since 2008’s Music Box Ballerina—has consistently featured cinematic, orchestrally-minded composition with plenty of hybridized instrumentations. But on Become Giant, Ulery takes listeners on a new kind of journey: a flowing series of dance movements penned for string sextet and drum set. For many music fans, this recording—which combines folk harmonies on European classical instruments with the superb Jon Deitemeyer’s drum set accompaniment—will serve as a charmed door opening into a strange and beautiful new room. Lyrical, spellbinding musical storytelling resounds throughout.
The story of Become Giant begins nearly five years ago, when Nathan Cole—First Associate Concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic—reached out to Ulery on the recommendation of Zach Brock. Cole was looking to feature a guest composer at the Chamber Music Festival in Lexington, Kentucky, to have a piece written for Cole’s string quartet with Brock as a violin soloist. Ulery accepted, proposing an instrumentation with himself written into the music on double bass alongside his longtime collaborator, drummer Deitemeyer. It was a natural move: Deitemeyer, Brock, and Ulery already had a band together and had played in various projects for a whopping 18 years. (They would later release Wonderment in July 2019 on Woolgathering Records.) The result was the premier concert of “Become Giant”—a forty-minute piece of music in eleven movements that the group performed on September 1st, 2017.
“The music I write is usually recorded and released pretty quickly from when I start the process of writing it and playing it live,” remarks Ulery. “So this is the first time I’ve ever had a piece active for such a long time before recording. And it’s been growing steadily between sets.”
What began as a commission for a single festival turned into a gift that patiently kept on giving: a work that unfolded across the country, performed on five occasions throughout a stretch of just over two years, pre-pandemic. “After Lexington,” remembers the composer, “we did the piece with the Miami String Quartet. Then we played it with the Atom String Quartet, a terrific group from Poland. So we’d be touring as a trio, and then we’d hook up with these quartets for a concert. Sometimes, we’d play a trio set in the same concert as we’d do ‘Become Giant’ with the larger band. And then we’d continue down the road again as a trio.”
Such a situation is a rare privilege for musicians, offering bandmates a chance to play different roles and newly explore their musicianship together. “Everyone that plays with Matt brings their best,” shares Deitemeyer, “and tries to honor his music. I have to come up with an approach that’s going to perpetuate his ideas—which are often very specific—all while I still function as a drummer. It’s hard, but it’s also really wonderful, and it’s made me such a good musician through that process.”
That process resulted in the new album, Become Giant, which includes a distillation of the original eleven movements and the addition of a follow-up work, the 11-minute “Shine Faintly with a Wavering Glow,” penned in 2020. The KAIA String Quartet, consisting of Victoria Moreira, violin; Joy Curtin, violin; Oana Tatu, viola; and Hope DeCelle, cello; had worked with Ulery on a handful of his other mixed chamber/jazz projects, particularly with his quintet, Loom. “When we finally played it with KAIA in Chicago,” recalls Ulery, “which was March 2018—I knew that this was the quartet I wanted to develop and ultimately record the piece with.” Two and a half years later, KAIA—self-described as “an ensemble devoted to promoting the rich and colorful music of Latin America”—joined Brock, Ulery, and Deitemeyer for an evening performance on October 20th, 2021 at Constellation in Chicago. The next day, the seven musicians went into the studio to lay down what is now on recording.
So, what is Become Giant?
“Matt’s always had great song titles,” laughs Brock. “They’re usually somewhat opaque; a turn of phrase he’s thought about that doesn’t make itself known right away. Sometimes we ask him, and he tells us. Sometimes we ask him and he doesn’t tell us. I certainly didn’t understand what “Become Giant” meant at first. When I first got the piece, I thought: this is a long piece of music. The idea becomes giant? The concept becomes giant? Is Matt becoming more of a giant composer? Is it about wanting to be something bigger than you feel you are?
“In this particular piece,” Brock continues, “I was really on a fence. I’ve spent so much of my life trying to clearly hear a different way of sounding, of playing my instrument. I love the traditional, classical approach to the violin, but I never liked hearing it played that way in jazz. So in this piece, I almost felt—at first—like I had a Jeckyl and Hyde problem. I would be in the middle of a line with the string quartet, and then suddenly there’s an eight bar improvisation for me—and I would adjust my voice, change my voice. I wasn’t successful; I felt like it was impeding my creative flow.
“At a certain point, playing this piece allowed me to hear a new sound in my own playing—a sound that wasn’t one or the other, classical or jazz, but just something new. And to me, becoming giant, in that moment—when I finally heard this new sound—maybe one that Matt was coaxing from me, maybe something I was hearing myself—becoming giant meant transcending creative limitations and categories that I’d placed myself in, that I was jumping back and forth between, and just growing larger: in the sense that the sound was more encompassing: all-encompassing of my life, my influences, and my personality.”
Become Giant’s first movement, I, begins with slow curtains of harmony blowing longingly in a wind, with a melody that yearns and broods, opens up, and yearns again. In II/III, the piece enters into a brisk, loping dance with an insistent melody; as the energy mounts, Brock “catches fire,” as Ulery puts it, spinning the melody into a brief and poignant improvisation. IV is calmer, more plaintive—a dirge. This too builds in power and, with Dietemyer’s pounding low tom toms, things rise to a crying pitch until they cut, suddenly, for a heartrending solo cadenza improvised by Brock. V brings the ensemble back in with a trotting groove; Brock and the Quartet carry a melody, woeful and wistful, over the rhythm. VI/VII continues with lilting pizzicato patterns, gently foaming and turning like waves on the sea as Deitemyer colors the time with brushes. In the final track of “Become Giant,” VIII/IX/X, the music steadies itself before pushing out another gorgeously romantic melody. The pace quickens, then, and Brock delivers a unique line; the Quartet pushes a rhythm that gives way to a darker, urgent passage, with Deitemeyer’s galloping breakbeat undergirding. Brock lets loose for a moment, but only a moment; and then the ensemble races mightily to the finish line, ending with a suddenness.
“I’m just doubling down on the beauty and the dance,” says Ulery. “I always approach writing music experimentally; I don’t ever have an agenda, a story to tell. I love how music is so abstract, how a melody can take you places, especially with the right context of harmony and rhythm. And I like,” he says, “when music has a groove. I like it when it feels good.”
The album’s last track, “Shine Faintly with a Wavering Glow” begins with a strobing effect—the one bit of programatic music on the record, a musical representation of a flickering candle—and opens up into a darkly warm melody. Things build patiently. Little jagged images pop out behind corners and become suspicious characters. A long, melancholic line wells forth; then things consolidate, the scene narrows. Brock soon leads the ensemble down a new avenue. Tension rises, falls; Ulery’s bassline is stilted, disorienting; the music seems to reach the foot of a tall staircase and begin battling upward: and then the piece ends, powerfully, with a triple set of one-two punches against a long note held resolutely by the violins.
And thus concludes Become Giant.
“This is my 12th record,” states Ulery. I guess what I want people to know about me is: I make music that’s experimental, but every project I do is going to be different than the last one. And this is the next thing, and it’s special. I’m sort of playing the long game of just being a prolific artist; I love artists like that. Not only the ones that put out tons of different kinds of music but also the ones that get into different kinds of art forms. I may or may not be quite there—but I look toward that.”
In his original premier program notes, Ulery states that, upon receiving the commission to write what would soon reveal itself as Become Giant, “I spent much of my free time thinking about this mysterious offering and began capturing melodies.” The best gifts are those that inspire more giving; and so Ulery now presents us with his own mysterious offering, full of surprises: whimsical turns, dark alleys and immense pastoral vistas.