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)

“Bassist Matt Ulery has established himself as one of the most rigorous, thoughtful and ambitious figures in Chicago’s jazz scene, a composer with a deep curiosity and an ability to deftly assimilate his wide interests. His new double album, Festival, serves as a summation of what he’s been working toward the last decade, but it delivers a statement more sophisticated and accomplished than anything he’s done yet.”

“By rooting himself to folk music, he gives the songs a strong emotional tether, allowing the harmonies to achieve great depths, and the melodies to soar to great heights. Also impressive is how the grand majesty of Ulery’s compositions comes through whether performed by orchestra or small combo.” Full article here.