Matt Ulery’s Become Giant is a towering addition to the bassist-songwriter’s catalog
Most bass players must be chameleons. It’s more or less in the job description when your instrument can be played straight or electric, be strummed or plucked, and appear in settings as disparate as minimalist jazz trios and full-fledged symphony orchestras. But few bassists change form as easily and as often as Matt Ulery, a musician and songwriter from Chicago who’s been involved in so many projects he sometimes seems ubiquitous. Unsurprisingly, Ulery’s output as a composer and conductor is equally versatile. Last years Delicate charms: living at the green mill evokes the smoky mystique of the Uptown room, rendered in a chunky romantic idiom, while the studio album that precedes it, 2020’s pollinatoris a stormy, blow-by-blow return to 1920s swing.
The music on the brand new Ulery Become Giant (on his own Woolgathering label) evolved over nearly five years of performance from a piece he wrote on commission for violinist Nathan Cole of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It delves more into the harmonies and sensibilities of 20th-century classical, an inspiration evident in the structure of the album: it is organized as a suite in ten mostly written movements (and a coda added later) . The unusual instrumentation combines solo violin (Zach Brock), bass (Ulery), and drums (Jon Deitemyer) with a string quartet (the Chicago-based Kaia String Quartet). This septet evokes the ultra-decadent sounds of turn-of-the-century Vienna (are there any Zemlinsky fans?) and the impressionistic acrobatics of Ravel’s String Quartet; Brock’s earthy, twisted finger improvisations cut through the sweetness with cathartic acidity. Ulery, Brock and Deitemyer have played together for almost 20 years, and they recorded as a trio for 2019 Wonder (also on Woolgathering). Become Giant pushes their synergy to greater heights while nodding to Ulery’s recent production – compare, for example, Kaia’s hard-hitting backing rhythm in the ninth movement of Become Giant to almost identical themes of Wonder (“Leveled”) or delicate charms (“The arrival”). But while much of Become Giant feels familiar, there are also plenty of twists. Brock reflects in the sleeve to the notes that the album “allowed me to hear a new sound in my own playing – a sound that was neither, classical or jazz, but just something again”. Become Giant it’s new, yes, and it’s exhilarating.
Matt Ulery Become Giant is available through Bandcamp.