The next time you go to see live jazz in a club, and the band is playing original compositions, look closely in front of the musicians. Sometimes there'll be stands holding sheet music. There's nothing wrong with this per se, especially if the music is a bit complicated. But sometimes there'll be no need for stands, as the musicians have memorized the material. It's impressive, but it also signals a certain commitment, one borne of having rehearsed and performed together often. You frequently see this in tight bands that know what they're doing.
The Chicago bassist Matt Ulery writes beautiful music in an unpretentious way. It's intricate stuff, with interlocking parts and segmented structures. It often borrows from Eastern European scales, orchestral tone colors, folky textures. (On his backpack, he sports a SXSW patch from when he toured with a rock band called In Tall Buildings.) But it doesn't sound like calculus class, as in some other ambitious works of modern jazz. It never seems to stray too far away from pretty melody over undulating rhythms, and that deceptive simplicity sets it apart.
Last year Ulery put out a grand two-disc set of music you might call "chamber jazz." By A Little Light had strings, orchestral horns and singers — the whole nine yards. But he has also long done lavish on a smaller scale with a band called Loom. A rejiggered quintet lineup (note: bass clarinet, accordion) produced this year's Wake An Echo, which the band brought to our office during a brief summer tour. Listen for yourself and decide whether you think the music is as rich as this description makes it out to be. But at least note how the band was playing without sheet music — having committed to getting this overlapping, precise stuff down pat.
- "Coriander" (Ulery)
- "My Favorite Stranger" (Ulery)
- Matt Ulery, bass
- Marquis Hill, trumpet
- Geof Bradfield, bass clarinet
- Rob Clearfield, keyboards/accordion
- Jon Dietemyer, drums
Producers: Denise DeBelius, Patrick Jarenwattananon; Audio Engineer: Kevin Wait; Videographers: Parker Miles Blohm, Chloe Coleman, Denise DeBelius; photo by Chloe Coleman/NPR