The music of Chicago bassist-bandleader Matt Ulery exerts a strange and powerful pull on listeners, via unconventional means.
Amid the din of 21st century life and music, Ulery speaks through an often soft and never hurried ensemble sound. When his scores produce climaxes, they're gradual and inexorable, rather than shocking or self-dramatizing. This is a music that seeks to lure the audience rather than conquer it, listeners drawn to the hypnotic rhythms and lulling repetitions of Ulery's writing.
Certainly that was the case Friday night at the Green Mill Jazz Club, where Ulery led the latest incarnation of his Loom quintet to celebrate the release of "Wake an Echo" (Greenleaf Music). Though conceived on a more intimate scale than Ulery's breakthrough recording of last year, the double album "By a Little Light," "Wake an Echo" conveys a similar, heady effect via undulating rhythms and radiantly lyrical lines.
If "By a Little Light" was a tour de force of jazz-classical writing on a grand scale, the music of "Wake an Echo" unfolded in more introspective fashion. Yet Ulery's voice projects through both ventures, and it's a distinctive one.
The evening opened just as the new album does, with the steadily pulsing motifs of "The Lady Vanishes." Here was a music that ebbed and flowed, its comparatively simple but unpredictable melodic lines giving the score a narrative, storytelling quality. As bassist Ulery, pianist Rob Clearfield and drummer Jon Deitemyer produced gently rolling rhythms, bass clarinetist Geof Bradfield and trumpeter Marquis Hill created a muted, deeply burnished instrumental blend.
By the time the band was well into "Over Under Other," also from "Wake an Echo," one began to view the new music as a kind of stripped-down, ethereal counterpart to "By a Little Light." Many of the scales and harmonies were similar, but the tone was lighter, with a greater emphasis on musical conversation among the players.
Even so, "Wake an Echo" stands as a significant work in its own right, apart from inescapable comparisons. Its compositions show Ulery's gift for crafting memorable themes redolent of pop music but rich in harmonic implications. "In Every Lonely Chamber," for instance, unfurled a beguiling melody on which bass clarinetist Bradfield and trumpeter Hill built exquisite arabesques. Themes and counter themes emerged from a midst a hazy ensemble sound, then disappeared, underscoring the mysterious quality of this music.
And in "My Favorite Stranger," the combination of Clearfield's soft and sustained chords on accordion, Deitemyer's crisp and evocative drum work and Ulery's deeply resonantly lines on bass would have been fascinating to behold even without the front line. Add to the mix Hill's fluttering phrases on trumpet and Bradfield's darkly cast tones on bass clarinet, and you had a music of considerable nuance, texture and detail.
Yes, it's true that "Wake an Echo" doesn't achieve the grandeur or operatic dimensions of "By a Little Light," nor is it really designed to. If the earlier opus left a deeper impression, "Wake an Echo" can be considered another dimension of Ulery's emerging art. It's a sonatina rather than a symphony, but it's a moving one, nonetheless.
Matt Ulery's Loom plays at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $12; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com.