May 5, 2023
Bassist, composer, bandleader, and Woolgathering Records label founder Matt Ulery presents his new undecet album Mannerist.
As Chicago Reader put it in a glowing review of his previous album, Become Giant, “[He’s] in so many projects that he sometimes seems omnipresent. Unsurprisingly, Ulery’s output as a composer and bandleader is just as multivalent.” Indeed, Mannerist is Ulery’s 14th album as a leader, but this is an artist who deals not only in quantity, but a spectacular degree of quality.
Mannerist represents something of a synthesis of three musical components. The first is Ulery’s trio — himself, pianist Paul Bedal, and drummer Jon Deitemyer. The next component is a triage of horn players — tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi, trumpeter James Davis, and trombonist Chris Shuttleworth.
Rounding out the 11-piece group on woodwind and brass are clarinetist Zachary Good, oboist Andrew Nogal, bassoonist Ben Roidl-Ward, flutist Constance Volk, and French hornist Matthew Oliphant — all members of the acclaimed new-music collective Ensemble Dal Niente.
A rapprochement between jazz and chamber music, Mannerist was the result of Ulery’s bestowance of an Esteemed Artist Award, a generous grant from the city of Chicago. Ulery applied the funds to three albums: Become Giant, Mannerist, and another to be announced.
“At the time, I was thinking: I want to make a string record, and I want to make a brass-winds record,” Ulery explains regarding the contrasts between Become Giant — which contains a string sextet plus drums — and Mannerist. The throughline? “The music on both albums is mostly through-composed with improvisation in just the right places to help shape the energies built into the forms.”
At their compositional core, these six pieces are imbued with mystery, longing and philosophical intrigue.
“I’ve found myself in all kinds of musical situations,” Ulery says, and he’s correct — he’s played in ensembles large and small, alongside luminaries from Kurt Rosenwinkel to Howard Levy to Makaya McCraven and beyond. “Then, when it’s time to put my name on something that I want to write and present,” he adds, “it’s easier for me to distill out what I don’t want to do with a new project.”
As such, he honed the underlying concept of Mannerist. “I love playing music that’s elegant in a larger ensemble,” he continues. “Not a huge orchestra that needs a conductor, because I don’t find that as intimate.”
Another component of the aesthetic is the chemical reaction between big-band jazz and contemporary classical musicians. Ulery is no stranger to either sphere, having worked with groups like Eighth Blackbird and Axiom Brass, all while inhaling a multiplicity of forms, including American, South American, Balkan, and assorted European idioms.
This also goes for his own ensembles, which straddle both spheres: orchestral art songs as per Sifting Stars Orchestra, jazz big band Loom Large, jazz quintets Loom and Delicate Charms, jazz brass band Pollinator, and chamber jazz nonet By a Little Light Ensemble.
As for Mannerist, a rapprochement between both worlds? “I’ll leave it up to the critics to call that what they want to call it,” he says wryly.
The shimmering pening track “Bridges” stemmed from a commission from the Carmine Curuso jazz trumpet competition held in Chicago in 2019. “I usually write music that could potentially work for any instrument then nurture the composition until it becomes apparent how the orchestration will take shape,” Ulery notes. “This is one of those tunes that’s exploring some new kind of bright harmony.”
Ulery characterizes “The Brink of What” as “a multi-movement type of piece” that “unfolds into different tempos and sections and moods,” starting with a dynamic ballad inspired by the spirit of Duke Ellington’s music. Again, those uber-bright harmonies manifest — some usually out of the bounds of jazz tradition.
“There’s this super light, bright and super-dark thing happening at the same time, and some of the melodies are choosing notes that are sort of theoretically wrong,” Ulery says. “I’m deep into some music theories, but my reasons are purely emotional.”
As for the harmonically luxurious “Another Book of Ornaments,” Ulery lifted the title from a drawing he viewed at the Art Institute of Chicago.
“I didn’t know this would end up in this 11-piece brass, wind, piano, bass, drums ensemble when the music was first coming out,” he admits. “But it kind of went with my vibe of this elegant thing, this fancy sophistication, and that gilded design resonated with me as a visual for this.”
Ulery wrote the luminescent “Left Window” in one of his favorite meters: 3/4. “If one has ever listened to my collection of music over the years, they know that I can waltz the night away,” he says. Therein, Ulery employs an Elliott Smith-inspired time feel; as the tune rolls on, the swinging waltz dreamily blurs into an Afro-Latin 9/8 feel dance.
Most or all of these ideas roll together into the hustling “Under a Dusken Crown: the harmony and phrasing, the jazz-band rhythm section, the feel of the solos, the “super-bright, wrong notes in there.” After this track-length summation of the album’s concepts, Mannerist concludes stunningly with the magisterial “The Prairie is a Rolling Ocean,” which Ulery originally recorded and released on 2018’s Sifting Stars.
“Instead of having two altos, two tenors, and bari, I decided to use the classical winds,” Ulery says. “I did a fresh arrangement, and I thought it was even better than the original I recorded.”
As per Ulery’s vision, heart and estimable compositional skill, the music on Mannerist speaks for itself — and that’s by design. “It’s abstract art,” he says. “There are no words.”
But as such, this caliber of contemporary music is bound to kick up a duststorm of associations and emotional responses — harmonies, timbres and rhythms that bypass the language centers and perforate the heart.