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.