Top 50 Favorite Albums Of 2012 (all genres) by NPR Music
Top 10 Jazz Albums of 2012 by NPR’s A Blog Supreme
“one of the most hauntingly beautiful recordings of this year — or any other. This magical, profoundly musical release embraces more aesthetic influences than one might have thought a cohesive recording could.” —Chicago Tribune
★★★★ 1/2 -Downbeat
“a masterpiece of grand vision and soaring compositions.” —eMusic
Even during a time when eclectic tastes are becoming the norm and a vast diversity of sound is available at the touch of a button, Matt Ulery still seems singularly difficult to pigeonhole. The two releases by his seven-piece jazz ensemble, Loom, sandwich Themes and Scenes, an album of orchestral compositions inspired by film scores. A first-call bassist on the vibrant Chicago jazz scene, he also draws inspiration from Eastern European folk music as a member of the Balkan-flavored ensemble Eastern Blok and via his long-standing collaboration with Polish-born singer Grazyna Auguscik.
On his fourth release as a leader, the double-disc By a Little Light, Ulery seamlessly brings together those wide-ranging experiences and influences – among others – into a rich body of compositions that moves beyond notions of jazz-classical fusion to speak with a distinctive individual voice unburdened by genre limitations. Working with members of the iconoclastic contemporary music ensemble eighth blackbird, Ulery creates a unified ensemble rather than simply supplementing a jazz group with classical trappings.
“The music I wrote for this record was inspired by Romantic classical music, American minimalist composers, the entire jazz spectrum, Eastern European folk music, as well as modern indie rock,” Ulery says. “It was designed to be played with great musicians who don’t necessarily play jazz. The rhythm section has to be strong in that sense, and their phrasing and articulation were completely informed by their history of playing jazz. But I looked at the project not as going back and forth between the jazz and classical worlds, I looked at it as working with great musicians.”
The result combines the lush grandeur of Rachmaninoff with the hypnotic recursions of modernists like Philip Glass or Steve Reich; the glacial pop textures of Portishead with the ebullient rhythms of Balkan folk; all girded by the spine of a jazz trio in the modern tradition of Brad Mehldau. Conceived to showcase his talents as composer and arranger, the music is largely through-composed, ceding all solo turns to the piano despite Ulery’s considerable bass chops.
The title track, “By a Little Light,” features the unadorned piano trio, and lends its name to the album as a whole as Ulery’s acknowledgment of the trio’s role as the core of all the music contained on both discs. (The trio features Ulery and either pianist Rob Clearfield and drummer Michael Caskey or pianist Ben Lewis and drummer Jon Deitemyer.) The tune’s moody swing is immediately preceded by the cinematic “Dark Harvest,” one of a series of pieces by that name that Ulery writes every Halloween; and followed by the Ravel-inspired “To Lose Your Mind,” which was performed by friends at the composer’s wedding.
Another set of nuptials, those of violinist Zach Brock, Ulery’s longtime friend and colleague in Loom and in this ensemble, were the occasion for the composition of “Processional,” which opens the second disc and which set the template for the instrumental make-up of this project. The piece serves as a fanfare to usher in the vocal half of the album, featuring Auguscik’s entrancing voice on four cuts and Ulery himself stepping to the microphone, taking the lead for the tender, searching “Broken and Blinded.”
“I’ve never really been a singer,” Ulery admits. “But I wanted to sing that song. My voice gives it a character that needed to be there for that composition.”
The vocally-oriented compositions, while retaining the character of the project as a whole, forefront the influence of some of pop music’s more imaginative songwriters, from Paul McCartney to Kurt Cobain, Sufjan Stevens to Tom Waits. “I love music with singing, as much as I’m steeped in more instrumental music,” Ulery says. “None of this music was written with the intent to have lyrics, though when I do write melodies I like to think that they’re lyrical enough that they could be sung with words. So it’s an interesting challenge to write words to existing melodies. I want to be able to give listeners something very specific to think about, as opposed to more abstract instrumental music.”