JAZZ SCENE

Can Matt Ulery's new album match last year's triumph, 'By a Little Light'?

Last year, Chicago bassist-bandleader Matt Ulery won richly deserved national acclaim for "By a Little Light," a daring, unconventional double album that ranked among the most hauntingly beautiful jazz releases of 2012. By merging jazz, classical and Eastern European folkloric influences, Ulery and a large ensemble created music at once accessible, sophisticated and melodically seductive.

The allure of that work and the degree of attention it received set expectations quite high for Ulery's follow-up recording, "Wake an Echo." But the new release – which Ulery will celebrate Friday and Saturday nights at the Green Mill Jazz Club – steps away from the grandeur and operatic dimensions of "By a Little Light." Penned for the decidedly smaller forces of Ulery's long-running jazz quintet Loom, "Wake an Echo" sounds looser, quieter, more intimate.

Perhaps Ulery felt that after the epic scale of "By a Little Light," there was only one way to go: small.

"No, it's always been simultaneous," says Ulery, referring to his need to work on both large-scale orchestrated scores and chamber-like jazz.

"I've always had this band (Loom) in some formation and always have been working on larger projects," continues Ulery. "It's a parallel distance and intertwined. … I have another album in the works – the music is almost all written now – and it's going to be another bigger project … along the lines of 'By a Little Light' – a larger thing like that.

"It always was easy for me to do this, because I know I've always got something on the back and front burners."

In truth, both burners are rather close to one another, at least insofar as Ulery's musical language is concerned. Like "By a Little Light," "Wake an Echo" is an abundantly atmospheric work built on exotic scales, muted instrumental colors and darkly moody expression. If "By a Little Light" was meticulously scored for jazz and classical instrumentalists, with high-flown vocals from singer Grazyna Auguscik, "Wake an Echo" gives the Loom musicians a great deal of room in which to improvise.

But this incarnation of Loom is different from the past: Ulery has created a new front line, with Marquis Hill playing trumpet and Geof Bradfield on bass clarinet. Together, these horns create burnished instrumental colors of considerable appeal; individually, they spin the long-lined lyricism that's at the core of so much of Ulery's music.

Add to this the seasoned rhythm section of bassist Ulery, nimble drummer Jon Deitemyer and uncommonly poetic pianist Rob Clearfield, and you have a band uniquely equipped to address Ulery's deeply introspective, emotionally open, melodically urgent writing.

"I met (Marquis) when he was in high school – the guy blew me away immediately and still does," says Ulery, who needed to replace Loom musicians who had moved out of town. "He's got a unique voice and tone. …

"Geof I've known for years as an accomplished tenor player and a leader and composer. One day we were playing a gig at Andy's … and I was asking him if he played bass clarinet. … He said when he picks up a bass clarinet, in the process of playing jazz and (chord) changes, he's not falling back on the bebop tenor language, (an idiom that) is absolutely to be respected and appreciated.

"But part of the concept of my band is not necessarily focusing on that language – that special language – even though we all speak it. We more or less deliberately don't engage in that as much, so it made perfect sense" to recruit Bradfield.

True enough, the musical syntax of both "By a Little Light" and "Wake an Echo" steers clear of the hyper-virtuosity, fast-flying chord changes and rhythmic tumult of bebop, the dominant jazz language of the mid-20th century. Instead, Ulery's music revels in incantatory phrases, unhurried but circuitous melody lines and lush instrumental colors.

But anyone expecting Ulery's new music to reflect the high drama of "By a Little Light" or a radical shift away from its musical syntax is in for a surprise. Yet those who are attuned to the fervent lyricism and textural delicacy of Ulery's work will find much to treasure in the music from "Wake an Echo."

Or at least that's what an audition of the recording suggests. The ultimate measure of the meaning of this music, of course, won't be possible until Ulery and his colleagues in Loom play it live at the Mill this weekend.

"All these guys are bandleaders and composers, and that's a big deal to me," says Ulery, who recently received a masters degree in jazz composition from DePaul University and now teaches at Loyola University.

Did the graduate training help him?

"Learning about the physics and science of art is very important, and that's what academia is about," says Ulery. "You can't learn to be creative in school, but you can learn the tools you need to be creative."

Those tools seem to be working quite well for him.

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