What a year this has been for Chicago bassist-composer Matt Ulery.
His breakthrough album, "By a Little Light" (Greenleaf Music), has been turning up on best-of-year lists, including NPR's and the Chicago Tribune's. He has taken this hauntingly beautiful music to venues across the country and expanded it for a major Millennium Park show over the summer, as part of the "Made in Chicago: World Class Jazz" series. And he'll be closing 2012 with a concert reading Friday night of "By a Little Light" at Northeastern Illinois University to be broadcast live over WFMT-FM 98.7.
"It's kind of been the gift that keeps on giving," says Ulery, though, in truth, he and his collaborating musicians are making the contributions.
"I've spent a good amount of time thinking about that music … and it's been inspiring to revisit the music, to redefine it with the musicians.
"When I originally wrote it, I was just writing for the music's sake, and I knew I wanted to record it and make an album and all that," continues Ulery. "And I used instrumentation of people I wanted to play with. Recording it was super fun.
"But the group of people that recorded it didn't play on every song on the album, and in concert I wanted everybody to have a part … so I rearranged some of it."
And that's what has made "By a Little Light" — already a one-of-a-kind recording — a living, breathing, evolving work of art and, perhaps, helps explain the constant demand Ulery is finding for it. Listen to the double album, and you'll hear Ulery's deft hand in arranging his original scores for jazz colleagues and members of the contemporary music ensemble eighth blackbird. The work transcends conventional stylistic boundaries, intertwining freewheeling jazz improvisations with the methods of Eastern European folkloric music, the meticulous voicings of classical composition and hints of film scores that Ulery says long have inspired him.
As strong as the recording is, however, it blossomed into a still more impressive work last summer, when Ulery and his musically far-flung colleagues performed it at the Green Mill. Portions of the piece took on an operatic dimension, with Chicago vocalist Grazyna Auguscik — a longtime Ulery collaborator — unreeling improvised vocal lines of tremendous sweep and harmonic audacity. The performance represented a quantum leap from the recording.
I missed the subsequent Millennium Park concert because of travel plans, but Ulery considers that event — before thousands of listeners — another key step in the apparently perpetual evolution of the music from "By a Little Light."
"It was the best audience I've had the opportunity to play my music for," says Ulery. "The venue itself feels very intimate. It's kind of a living venue, because at that time of year, when the concert starts, the sun is out, and by the time it's over, the sun is setting, and the lights of the Frank Gehry shell are coming on. The energy (onstage) was flowing and changing with the light in the sky and on the stage. I think it helped bring people's attention to the music."
Ulery had written new pieces for that occasion and continues to do so, which means Friday night's version could mark another transformation in the most important work of Ulery's emerging career. He's still a graduate student at DePaul University's School of Music, after all, and has only begun to make himself heard.
Also worth hearing
Chris Foreman: The widely admired Chicago organist plays an engagement that's comparable to nothing else in the city. Seated at the Hammond B-3 behind the bar, Foreman takes requests and rejects them, banters with his listeners and otherwise helps everyone relieve tension after a week at work. Along the way, he plays the organ quite effectively and fluently. 5 to 8 p.m. Friday at Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; free; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com
Spider Saloff: An intrepid and versatile Chicago singer, Saloff has played practically every club, cabaret and concert hall this city has to offer, but Katerina's has become her home. She works its intimate environs to maximum effect, establishing direct contact with her listeners. And she happens to be a first-class scat singer, as well. 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Katerina's, 1920 W. Irving Park Road; $10; 773-348-7592 or katerinas.com
Jimmy Ellis: The esteemed Chicago saxophonist, an alumnus of Captain Walter Dyett's celebrated program at DuSable High School, hasn't been performing much publicly during the last year, so this engagement represents a welcome opportunity to hear him again. The penetrating tone and blues-tinged quality of his playing make him a singular voice in Chicago jazz. He'll be performing in an ensemble led by a younger-generation player, the dynamic drummer Isaiah Spencer. 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Andy's Jazz Club, 11 E. Hubbard St.; $10 before 7:30 p.m.; $15 after 7:30 p.m.; 312-642-6805 or andysjazzclub.com
Siegel-Schwall Band: Chicago harmonica whiz Corky Siegel and guitarist Jim Schwall made a name for themselves in the late 1960s and early '70s, building on Chicago's blues legacy and presenting the music to an audience of young contemporaries. This time, they're presenting what they call a "holiday edition" of the ensemble, with bassist Rollo Radford and drummer Sam Lay. 8 p.m. Friday at Mayne Stage, 1328 W. Morse Ave.; $20-$30; 773-381-4554 or maynestage.com
Kurt Elling: When the former Chicago singer played City Winery in October, he significantly improved upon the pallid work he had been doing on recording and in performance in recent years. Will he maintain the intensity level or slip back into nonchalant singing? There's only one way to find out. 9 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $15; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com
Paulinho Garcia: The Chicago guitarist has become a master at merging the musical languages of his native Brazil with the improvisational techniques of all-American jazz. He's as disarming a vocalist as he is deft a guitarist, and in recent years he has been emerging as a distinctive composer, as well. He'll lead his quartet, with percussionists Geraldo de Oliveira, Heitor Garcia (his brother) and Dede Sampaio. 10 p.m. Saturday at Katerina's, 1920 W. Irving Park Road; $10; 773-348-7592 or katerinas.com
To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.
Matt Ulery's 'By a Little Light'
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Northeastern Illinois University's Steinberg Fine Arts Recital Hall, 3701 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.
Tickets: $10-$25; 773-442-4636 or boxoffice.neiu.edu