Matt Ulery’s Become Giant is a towering addition to the bassist-composer’s catalog

Matt Ulery
Credit: Devin Ulery

Most bassists have to be chameleons. It’s more or less in the job description when your instrument can be played upright or electric, be bowed or plucked, and appear in settings as disparate as minimal jazz trios and full-blown symphony orchestras. But few bassists shape-shift as effortlessly and as often as Matt Ulery, a Chicago musician and composer who’s a sideman in so many projects that he sometimes seems omnipresent. Unsurprisingly, Ulery’s output as a composer and bandleader is just as multivalent. Last year’s Delicate Charms: Live at the Green Mill evokes the smoky mystique of the Uptown venue, rendered in a big-boned, romantic idiom, while the studio album preceding it, 2020’s Pollinator, is a rumbustious, blow-by-blow throwback to 1920s swing.

The music on Ulery’s brand-new Become Giant (on his own Woolgathering label) evolved during nearly five years of performances from a piece he wrote on commission for violinist Nathan Cole of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It leans more into the harmonies and sensibilities of 20th-century classical, an inspiration evident in the album’s structure: it’s organized suite-style in ten mostly through-written movements (and a coda added later). The unusual instrumentation combines solo violin (Zach Brock), bass (Ulery), and drum kit (Jon Deitemyer) with a string quartet (the Chicago-based Kaia String Quartet). That septet conjures the ultra-decadent sounds of turn-of-the-century Vienna (any Zemlinsky fans out there?) and the impressionistic acrobatics of Ravel’s String Quartet; Brock’s finger-twisting, earthy improvisations cut the sweetness with cathartic tartness. Ulery, Brock, and Deitemyer have gigged together for nearly 20 years, and they recorded as a trio for 2019’s Wonderment (also on Woolgathering). Become Giant pushes their synergy to greater heights while winking at Ulery’s recent output—compare, for example, Kaia’s punchy backing rhythm in the ninth movement of Become Giant to almost identical themes from Wonderment(“Levelled”) or Delicate Charms (“The Arrival”). But while much of Become Giant feels familiar, there are also plenty of twists and turns. Brock muses in the liner notes that the album “allowed me to hear a new sound in my own playing—a sound that wasn’t one or the other, classical or jazz, but just something new.” Become Giant is new, yes, and it’s exhilarating.

Matt Ulery’s Become Giant is available through Bandcamp.


Matt Ulery ~ Become Giant

After a dozen albums, bassist Matt Ulery is still stretching his boundaries.  For the first few minutes of Become Giant, one doesn’t even hear him, focusing instead on the strings.  Violinist Zach Brock and Chicago’s KAIA String Quartet are the guest stars on this colorful release, comprised of the ten-movement title track and the eleven-minute “Shine Faintly With a Wavering Glow.”  While jazz remains an influence ~ especially in the improvisations ~ the album falls firmly within the grip of modern composition.

Those early moments ~ serious, somber, slow ~ set the baseline for the album to expand.  According to Brock, “giant” may refer to a new sound or approach.  As the second and third movements adopt a percussive and lilting timbre, one grows interested in the arc.

While the composition took form over a period of years, spaces were left for the performers to romp and explore.  The contrast between plucks and drawn bows is exquisite.  Jon Deitemyer’s drums steer the tone ever-so-slightly toward post-rock.  In the fourth movement, the ensemble seems ready to drive into that neighborhood until Brock takes solo stage.  The improvisational freedom means that every performance will be a little bit different, the studio set even more so, one movement and ten minutes briefer than the notes.

Time and time again, the ensemble floats back to those initial moments of sobriety, but seems too joyful to remain in that space for long.  The appeal of “Becoming Giant” is its seeming inability to stay down: an aural encouragement for our times, borne on the strings of performers who clearly love being in the same room after rehearsing apart.  By the ninth movement, there is dancing in the streets.

In contrast, “Shine Faintly With a Wavering Glow” is a slow builder, as befits its title.  The candle seems ever in danger of being extinguished, the breeze threatening to increase to wind.  And yet the weather holds; the light remains intact; the tumult recedes, and a sense of equilibrium is restored.  By the end, the listener feels enriched, enlarged, become giant.  (Richard Allen)

The Esteemed Artist Awards are special new $10,000 grants awarded to highly-qualified artists for expenses associated with an artist’s practice, such as studio rental, supplies, travel or equipment. They are part of the Chicago Cultural Grant’s Individual Artists Program (IAP). In celebration of 2020 as the Year of Chicago Music, half of the Esteemed Artist Awards are going to local musicians.

This program is partially supported by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust

Buzz about Sifting Stars:

“There’s always been a big sound to the compositions of Matt Ulery.” Read the full review here.

Read the full feature here.

“Matt Ulery blends styles and scenes with his multifarious new project.” Read the full feature here.

“…expressive, lush, sometimes romantic…” Read the full review here.

“…his fulsome gifts as a composer, melodicist, and arranger are clearly evidenced by this magnificent recording.” Read the full review here.

“This is an album for a cold morning as the sun rises or late in the evening when the house is quiet and the streets are still. Give this music time and you will be moved.” Read the full review here.

“The mystical quality of Chicago bassist-composer Ulery’s music never fails to cast its spell, regardless of the size or character of the ensemble in question.” Read the full Best of 2018 feature here.

“Ulery’s gifts as a composer, melodicist, and arranger are clearly evidenced by this magnificent recording.” Read Best of Textura 2018 here.

“Sifting Stars
is an arthouse opus, rethinking jazz structure, beauty and realism, Ulery approaching each with the utmost subtlety.” Read the full review here.