Matt Ulery: A Family Affair

by Troy Collins

Matt Ulery                                                                                                            © 2019 Michael Jackson

Known for sweeping lyricism, expressive emotionalism, and unconventional structures, Chicago-based bassist, composer, and bandleader Matt Ulery has established a recognizable sound. Ulery’s music is informed by the entire spectrum of jazz, classical, rock, pop, and folk music from the Americas, the Balkans, and other European regions. For the past decade, he has led several of his own bands, including Loom (jazz quintet), Loom Large (jazz big band), Pollinator (brass band), Sifting Stars Orchestra (orchestral art songs), and By a Little Light Ensemble (chamber jazz nonet). As a composer, Ulery has collaborated with a diverse array of New Music ensembles like Eighth Blackbird, New Millennium Orchestra of Chicago, and Axiom Brass, in addition to serving on faculty at Loyola University Chicago. An in-demand bassist, Ulery has also performed with local luminaries like Jeff Parker, Makaya McCraven, and Marquis Hill.

Ulery has released nine albums of original music under his own name over the past two decades, including three on Dave Douglas’ Greenleaf Music label, from 2012-2014: By a Little Light, Wake an Echo, and In the Ivory. His latest efforts have been issued on his own imprint, Woolgathering Records, including Festival (2016), Sifting Stars (2018), and most recently, Delicate Charms (2019), which features alto saxophonist Greg Ward, violinist Zach Brock, pianist Rob Clearfield, drummer Quin Kirchner, and Ulery on double bass. Dynamic and lyrical, Ulery’s ninth album as a bandleader is captivating and affecting, boasting a unique frontline supported by a traditional rhythm section. The interaction between Ward’s alto and Brock’s violin yields an array of colorful textures and melodious tonalities, whether playing in unison or counterpoint. I interviewed Ulery during the late fall of 2019, shortly after the album’s release.


Troy Collins: You’ve become a fairly ubiquitous presence as of late, but some early biographical information might be of interest to readers unfamiliar with your background. How did you get your start playing music?

Matt Ulery: Music has always been a love of mine as far as I can remember; singing a lot and experimenting on piano when I was a little kid. I was patiently awaiting the first day of 7th grade when we got to start band class. I gravitated to low brass and ultimately the tuba/sousaphone and started teaching myself electric bass at the same time. That concert/marching band class taught be how to read music, but I was also learning by ear on the bass guitar, specifically learning all the songs from Nirvana’s Nevermind album that I was obsessed with at the time. This is why I wanted to start playing the bass, to play rock music. In 8th grade, I started a punk/ska band, Skachoo, with my friends. It was fashionable at the time to make a Thai restaurant type pun in your band name if you played ska. This has to have started with The Skatalites, incidentally the band that introduced me to bebop, even though they played, among other things, Jamaica ska versions of bird tunes. Skachoo was my first band that I started writing music for, the songs/lyrics, horn parts, etc. In hindsight, the aggressive walking bass lines of Matt Freeman of Operation Ivy (Later Rancid) introduced me to the walking jazz bass line. The lineage branch of jazz/swing to rock and roll to ska/punk and hardcore does not escape me.

TC: Interestingly, I just picked up a reissued copy of The Skatalites debut LP, The Skatalite (Treasure Island, 1969) and was struck by how much more jazz-based it was compared to the group’s later albums (which still feature plenty of improvisation), but the debut album sounds almost like a jump blues band from a previous era.

There is an undeniable connection between rock and jazz that every generation discovers for itself: for me, it was realizing the Bad Brains were a jazz-fusion band before they went hardcore, or that Greg Ginn from Black Flag was inspired by John McLaughlin’s playing in Mahavishnu Orchestra. Do you feel like your early interest in punk and ska is still an inspiration to you when composing or improvising?

MU: I don’t feel directly inspired stylistically by these musics still (though I do have a punk project on the way back burner). However, the energy and dance rhythms certainly inform my improvising and composing. In hindsight, that time in my life gave me a deep appreciation for community, friends and friend’s bands, and the importance of going to a show, making the hang.

TC: Speaking of youthful endeavors, did you have any teachers or mentors that helped foster your love of music, or help lead you down a particular path?

MU: My friends have always been my most important teachers and my parents the greatest supporters as I sought/seek all the paths. My Uncle Bill taught me the 12-bar blues when I was 13 which opened up my ears to the rest of my life; that classic rockabilly bass line. I took that home and tried playing it over the different tonal centers on Nirvana songs and figured out the basic differences of major and minor chords and these shapes on the bass. It blew my mind. Also, I would say that my first (electric) bass teacher, Greg Myers, taught me the fundamental theories of music harmony by analyzing Beatles songs and gospel music when I was 14. This was invaluable.

TC: Your ensembles tend to run the gamut from large to small; do you write parts specifically intended for certain band mates or do you embrace a more egalitarian approach, where the tunes are more open to interpretation by different groups of players?

MU: I always approach writing for my different ensembles experimentally. For most of my smaller groups, once I ask the right players, I tend to write specifically for these folks based on what I know/think they can do. For example, when I wrote for the “front line” of violin and alto saxophone for my latest recorded band, Delicate Charms, I knew that Greg Ward, among other special talents, could uniquely play with a certain beautiful tone in the altissimo register of the horn while in high, tight harmonies with the violin. I didn’t know how scary that blend would end up being between him and Zach Brock. I certainly wouldn’t write for violin to be played by just any good violinist in an improvised music context.  It has to be Zach. These two giants hadn’t played with each other until I put this band together for a two-week residency at the Guimaraes (Portugal) Jazz Festival in November of 2018.

I have always been very careful with my rhythm sections. Rob Clearfield plays on all nine of my records and has really helped shape the sound of my compositional voice. In 2018, I was commissioned by the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington (Kentucky) to write a piece featuring Zach as a soloist with the string quartet in residence led by violinist, Nathan Cole (concert master of the LA Phil). I couldn’t resist writing myself into the piece, “Become Giant,” (45 minutes) and also convincing the festival to bring on drummer, Jon Deitemyer. In this ensemble project, the trio parts for Zach, Jon, and me are quite specific but can work with other great string quartets, which we’ve done a couple times since with the Miami String Quartet and KAIA String Quartet.  I hope to be able to record this one at some point.

For my larger ensembles, I often don’t know who will play until there’s an opportunity to make it happen after the writing process for these projects are already over. The exception to this would be a couple orchestral commissions I’ve had in the last few years.

I was commissioned earlier in 2019 by a special, unique ensemble, Projeto Arcomusical. I’d been an instant fan of them since I saw them perform at Constellation in Chicago in 2018. I could go on and on about them, but basically, they are a sextet of berimbau players that are playing contemporary chamber music like no other in the world. The piece I wrote for them, “Emigre and Exile,” which includes me playing double bass, has been performed twice in its entirety so far this fall (30 minutes long) and will be a major part of their 2020 season and will be recorded in the summer. I absolutely wrote this specifically for these individuals and there would be no other way since no one else is doing this.

TC: Let’s talk about Delicate Charms. It’s a wonderfully balanced record – tough, yet tender and melodically surefooted without ever being saccharine. How did it come about and what inspired you to choose that particular instrumentation?

MU: I’ve been wanting to get Greg Ward into one of my small groups for a long time now. We’ve known each other since 1999 when we found ourselves in the (IMEA) Illinois All State Honors Combo together. When I was asked to bring a small group to the Guimaraes (Portugal) Jazz Festival for a two-week residency in November 2018, I, as I usually do when presented with a new opportunity, formed a new quintet. Part of the residency, besides writing and conducting music in concert for a big band + string section of an elite young (college aged) group of musicians from the ESMAE school in Porto, was to also host jam sessions at midnight every other night and do workshops during the second week every day. Knowing there would be talented string players in the mix, I immediately thought to ask Zach to join in the fun. With their un-matched energy and enthusiasm, it seemed like the perfect time to get Zach and Greg together. Rob Clearfield was an obvious no-brainer to me. Quin Kirchner, a drummer who I’ve gotten to play a ton of music with in various styles over the years was also an easy choice, especially because, by that time we had been co-hosting a weekly jazz jam in Chicago every Monday at The Whistler. These good friends seemed like the perfect, delicate balance of musicianship, high level of ability to teach, and the greatest hang for two weeks in Portugal. The music and vibe felt so good that we recorded in Chicago just weeks later when we got home.

TC: Delicate Charms’ origin (a two-week residency) reminds me of how artists used to tour with longstanding line-ups more frequently, doing week-long stays at a club, for example. That phenomenon has become far less commonplace nowadays (for obvious economic reasons), but I wonder – how do you feel about one-off projects, versus say, touring bands? Although your ensembles vary, you also call upon certain individuals repeatedly (Rob Clearfield and Zach Brock come to mind). What are the benefits and limitations of long-term versus short-term bands?

MU: I think it’s safe to say that we (those of us leading different bands) would like to tour more and play more residencies. The only real obstacles are money and time, but time is money, so just money then. We all try to make it work when we can, when we hustle particularly hard and/or have a good opportunity come our way. Often times, the “short-term” bands just happen that way because of these logistical issues you brought up. I’ve found myself in many, many of these bands in my career so far and expect to again. It happens, though, that some of these short-term projects end up being quite long-term, but with giant gaps in between activity. It’s generally quite challenging to get people in a room together, even friends, especially when you work/play with the best.

TC: That said, how do the personal and/or stylistic dynamics of individual band members end up shaping the inner workings of your various groups?

MU: It all comes down to trust. I’ve learned a lot so far, occasionally the hard way but mostly inspired, that calling upon the right people for the aesthetic goes a long way to encourage new possibilities of development and longevity for any (experimental) project.  Discovering strengths and weaknesses in yourself in others through trial and error makes and keeps it all interesting.

TC: How do you feel about studio recording compared to live performance and how does that affect your playing in each situation?

MU: There’s nothing like the thrill of a live performance, sometimes being just prepared enough to know that unexpected things, for better or less good, will happen in the music or the room. Playing live is a constant “test” of how we approach fearlessness and being in the moment. Music can be such a great measure of that universal phenomenon we all deal with. In a studio, you sometimes have the option to edit your performance, which I’m totally fine with, by the way, in most situations. It can be a different process of making music, kind of like composing vs improvising; composing is improvising that you get to edit. Recording with a band in the studio is the best way to practice as a band. We hold ourselves and each other accountable because we might have to live with what goes down forever. When listening back to takes in the studio, we all hear what we could improve, especially if we can have an open dialogue about it. If all bands just recorded their rehearsals and talked about the music that happened in a constructive, sometimes critical way, we’d all be so much tighter, like after we come out of a recording session. Jazz musicians used to make records for recording companies (Columbia, Blue Note, etc.) but now WE are, for the most part, the record producers of our own art projects.

TC: Speaking of recordings (and being the head of your own label), what are your thoughts on the current state of the recording industry, specifically regarding archival documents (CDs, vinyl) versus more ephemeral formats (downloads, streaming)?

MU: The recording industry is, for all intents and purposes, not as much of a lucrative industry as it was. I think that’s obvious. But in the wide scope and history of music before and after, it only lasted about a hundred years or less and I was happy to catch the tail end. It’s no longer a smart business venture unless you are involved with a hit Netflix show or get into the video game scene as a composer/recording artist, or something like that. Music that is subservient to another art seems to have the most “industrial” possibilities, for better or worse. This does not, however, discourage me from making records (LPs, Compact Discs, and digital versions for the inter webs). I mean, the cloud will last forever, right? It’s a luxury to have access to anything at any moment we are on the internet. Word of mouth will just be the way again. In my experience working with independent labels such as Greenleaf Music (for three albums) and my own label, Woolgathering Records, there seems to be at least just enough interest out there, the people that actually buy stuff, to keep it sustainable. This direct-to-fans/grassroots model seems to be the only way. I believe it’s important to keep making music on these platforms while they’re still relevant. It’s fun. That’s the way we’ve always done it. But you can’t fight technology. I’m sure there are thousands of industries that have become obsolete because of certain technologies. The beauty about music/art, is that we culturally need it and that these industrial challenges keep us honest about it all.

TC: Considering these myriad changes, do you find musical inspiration in any particular technological advances, stylistic movements or particular artists?

MU: The ability to stream mostly anything has been a treasure of resources. I find myself using this technology often when learning and/or refreshing many various recordings of standards and jazz standards on the go. The algorithms producing similar musics are useful for discovering and rediscovering, too. I admit I’m a bit annoyed that certain streaming platforms steer users away from embracing the full album (they “decide” tracks based on some algorithmic mystery).

Lately, I’ve been listening to the Max Richter “album,” Sleep, (2015) an 8+ hour recording informed by the neuroscience of sleep. I’m deeply inspired and moved by this music and there’s no way it would be possible without streaming technology. Even a downloaded version would likely make a skipping distraction between tracks. Music that doesn’t break the spell intrigues me.

TC: Based on your response to the Richter album and it’s appropriateness to be heard in an uninterrupted (streaming) format, how do you feel about physical formats, like CDs and LPs, with their limited run-time? You release your own music in all three formats, yet CDs and LPs have different durations. Does that affect how much music you decide to record and release per album? Or do you let the chips fall as they may?

MU: I love Compact Discs and LPs and I enjoy their limitations. (Tapes are cool, too.) It’s fun to play a side and it’s a luxury to play a whole record (80 minutes or less) in full without turning over the record, but still having the tangible thing to decide on putting in the slot or tray. I like having CDs of my friend’s bands in my car (while it lasts). LPs won’t go away any time soon because they are kind of the original platform for recorded music of good quality tones and they’re clearly making a comeback, especially as people who didn’t grow up with them (or at least their parents having them) are embracing vinyl.

I release music on these three formats mainly because different folks prefer different ways to consume it. You certainly can’t fight it, so I like having options for people, as I like options, too. These concerns are, too, experimental.

On my recent release, “Delicate Charms,” I cut two tracks from the vinyl version because the sides were getting too long for the sound quality I wanted to keep on the record, so we included those two tracks on the CD/digital versions. In general, I shoot for have 40-60 minutes of music for my album projects and decide later what I’m going to do with it. The art project comes long before the industrial considerations.

Also, the latest music I’ve been getting into is the band, Idles (Scotland). They prove no bullshit. Have you heard?

TC: Idles are fantastic; they’re just what the doctor ordered, if you get my drift. Speaking of which, as one former punk to another, I’m curious how you feel about jazz as protest music? There’s a grand history, obviously (Max Roach, Charles Mingus, etc.), and a number of current artists (Nicole Mitchell, Dave Douglas, etc.) who are similarly motivated, but considering our current situation, I’m surprised there’s not more.

MU: Yeah, I totally get it. It’s just incredible that they (Idles) have such a sincere punk aesthetic and energy but are ultra-loving and positive, like, fuck off! (for not being a good person and not treating yourself better).

I’m all for jazz being protest music! Mingus’ activism was especially powerful because he put actual words (in song as well as titles) in the sentiments and was personally affected negatively by many of the various things he was calling out. These intentions feel visceral, too, especially the blues in his music and by who and how it was performed.

While I write words to my music sometimes, I guess I haven’t found my voice as a protester as it relates to my music, especially the stuff that I would consider abstract instrumental art music that very well might not be “about” anything but the art itself. I’m inspired by any artist that has something to say with their art and that can say it sincerely.

I’m a privileged white male and, while I have deep concerns about our environment and inequality, I’ve benefited so much more than less fortunate others that maybe I’ve been shy about “complaining” as much as I probably should on everyone’s behalf from my platform.

I do play in an all sousaphone and baritones/euphoniums protest band called Sahbra (Sousaphones against hate baritones resisting aggression) where we only play at organized protests (mostly against Trump and other like-minded evils) in the Chicago area. For the record, this is not a jazz band, but the spectacular is palpable.

I love that Dave Douglas’ message has recently been to put out more positivity into the word and I couldn’t agree more. His reach is wide, and I bet he feels responsible to do something. We should all do it more outwardly because the world obviously needs it. I, too, am surprised it doesn’t happen more in jazz. Maybe the lack of mainstream popularity and academic takeover of the music (perhaps hand in hand) has helped to dilute much of it into some things less soulful and communal.

TC: If one assumes the personal can be political, then just about any topic could be considered as much, which reminds me of “Coping,” the lead-off track from Delicate Charms. It sounds pretty thoroughly composed and transitions gradually from melancholy to something far more assertive, defiant even – I’m assuming there’s a story behind this one. Would you care to elaborate?

MU: True. It is almost entirely through composed until the “jazz waltz” section several minutes into the piece. As far as a story goes, there’s not a clear narrative, of course, as it’s that abstract instrumental art music that I was talking about. It’s more of an emotional narrative, if that even makes sense. The process of writing itself was a coping mechanism for me as three of my closest family members were dealing with cancer. I think everyone can agree; fuck cancer. That’s all I really want to say about that right now.

This is something that I had written about “Coping” for the press release and I can’t remember how much of it made it in in there:

“Coping” is the main piece from Delicate Charms. It’s a 13:27 almost entirely through-composed suite performed continuously in six parts. I wrote it slowly over the course of a year or more as health challenges affecting close family members weighed heavy. Writing lyrics about personal things has never been a strength of mine, so I chose the most comfortable setting for me to put these abstract emotions into music: a jazz quintet of friends and powerful performers.

I needed the spirited chemistry, prowess and rhythmic vibe to explore and convey the long-form, especially lyrical, emotional music. Tribulations and disarray in life are nothing new but as artists, we might be lucky enough to have creative outlets, mostly abstract in instrumental music, to somehow project or direct these personal impressions.

Reflecting on what came together in this time, I realized it was a process in patience, acceptance and transition. I learned that it was okay to escape into writing big chunks of music during a specific emotional time period rather than trying to compose the “perfect piece,” and that it’s okay to create a puzzle and figure it all out later, focusing on the balance of energies in real-time.

TC: Looking ahead, what immediate projects do you have scheduled for the future?

MU: I intend on finishing the writing for Mannerist, my latest sextet project I’m working on, and recording it this winter. My jazz brass band, Pollinator, recorded a couple months ago and I intend on releasing that in 2020 sometime. I play sousaphone in that band and we play original music in the spirit of 1920’s jazz. It will be my 10th album as a leader/writer and we’ll be celebrating the centennial of the music and the new roaring ‘20s with plenty of live performances. Woolgathering Records has some other fun stuff we’re releasing in 2020 as well. We’ll be announcing that soon.

© 2019 Troy Collins

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