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Matt Ulery: In the Ivory

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In the Ivory wasn’t written as a soundtrack, but someone ought to take it and build a film around the music. Matt Ulery, a bassist and composer, writes melodies that beg for expansive cinematic shots of open plains and characters who speak more through facial expressions than words. At the core of the music is Ulery’s trio, but that unit is joined by the contemporary chamber ensemble Eighth Blackbird, two vocalists and some reeds. If In the Ivory doesn’t fit under the banner of “jazz,” it doesn’t easily fit under any other label comfortably, either. Several approaches come together to make this music.

It should be mentioned that large projects are nothing new to Ulery; in 2012 he released the double-album By a Little Light through Greenleaf. “Gave Proof” opens the new album and wastes no time proving his mettle. Minimalist melodies keep shifting ever-so-slightly, with countermelodies from clarinets and alto flutes and, finally, the strings serving up a piece that feels like a main title. While the Philip Glass style of repetition reappears occasionally throughout the album, Ulery never lets it overpower the music. Even “Resilin,” which is built around it, lasts only a few minutes, serving more as an interlude that links the two discs. More often the compositions begin in one setting and expand into other territories. Here, perhaps, is where the jazz influence factors in. “Black Squirrel,” for example, begins with the strings introducing a melody that gets picked up by the piano, which eventually goes into a free solo before the melody returns.

Ulery wrote lyrics for five of the 14 tracks, straddling the esoteric and the dramatic. Polish vocalist Grazyna Auguscik sings four songs, with an accent that makes the lyric sheet a necessity to decipher Ulery’s drawn-out poetic implications. Most of the vocals add to the already expansive feeling of the album, save for “The Farm,” sung by Sarah Marie Young, which gets tripped up between the beat-poet style of the lyric and the music.

The element that keeps the album consistent is Ulery’s scoring. He uses the strings and woodwinds to create a rich sound, with the vocals and marimba making the textures memorable even when the songs are at their most complex. The closing “Viscous” might offer the best example: a tone poem full of droning strings which begin with the warmth of a hymn and shift into a minor setting. You can almost see the closing credits start to roll.

Originally Published