Matt Ulery – By a Little Light [2 CDs] – Greenleaf Music GRE1026, CD 1: 38:12, CD 2: 43:02 [6/19/12] ***:
(Matt Ulery – vocals (CD 2: tracks 2-5), arranger, double bass; Ben Lewis – piano (CD 1: tracks 1-5, CD 2: track 5); Rob Clearfield – piano (CD 1: track 6, CD 2: tracks 1-4, 6); Jon Deitemyer – drums (CD 1: tracks 1-5, CD 2: track  5); Michael Caskey – drums (CD 1: track 6, CD 2: tracks 1-4, 6); Michael Maccaferri – clarinet (CD 1: track 1, CD 2: tracks 1-2), bass clarinet (CD 2: tracks 3, 5-6); Tim Munro – flute (CD 1: track 1, CD 2: track 1), alto flute (CD 1: track 4, CD 2: tracks 2-3, 5-6); James Davis – trumpet, Flugelhorn (CD 1: track 1, CD 2: track 1-2, 4); Zach Brock – violin (CD 1: tracks 1, 3-5, CD 2: tracks 1, 5); Dominic Johnson – viola (CD1: tracks 1, 3, CD 2: tracks 1-3, 5-6); Nicholas Photinos – cello (CD 1: tracks 1, 3-6, CD 2: tracks 1-6); Matthew Duval – vibraphone, glockenspiel (CD 1: track 3), marimba (CD 1: track 6, CD 2: track 3-4), chimes (CD 2: track 1); Grazyna Auguscik – vocals (CD 2: tracks 2, 4-6)
Chicago bassist/composer Matt Ulery takes a different approach on his latest venture, the double-disc project By a Little Light, which melds jazz and classical into an iconoclastic fusion inspired by Romantic classical music, American minimalism, jazz, Eastern European folk and even current indie rock. While that probably seems like a possible hodgepodge, Ulery ably interweaves these elements via a progression of low-key emotional nuances and alterations, detailed moments of refinement and polished musical movements. At the core of both discs are two separate piano trios, featuring Ulery, either pianist Ben Lewis or his counterpart Rob Clearfield; and either drummer Jon Deitemyer or Michael Caskey. Ulery also divides his endeavor into two distinct suites or dramatic acts: the all-instrumental CD 1 is subtitled “Little Light,” whereas the mostly vocal CD 2 is subtitled “To the Brim.” Ulery also utilizes several other musicians to bring tonal color to his auditory palette and escalate his compositional dimensions, including members of the freethinking strings ensemble Eighth Blackbird; a horn section; and Polish-born, Chicago-based singer Grazyna Auguscik. By a Little Light was issued in both CD and digital download form: this review refers to the compact disc release.
The album’s moody veneer begins with slightly skewed, Halloween-tinted “Dark Harvest,” which evokes Ray Bradbury’s nocturnal narratives such as Something Wicked This Way Comes and Tim Burton’s cinematic fantasies such as Edward Scissorhands. Clarinet, flute, strings and piano commingle along a shadowy melody which circles from lyrical to dissonant and back. The lengthy, trio-only title track also initiates with a ghostly foreboding, where Lewis leads the threesome with prevalent jazz chords which start out with a memory-laced lining but before long move into a post-bop sweep. The trio returns to the arrangement’s melancholy ambiance by the tune’s conclusion. One of the standouts on the first disc is the gamboling “To Lose Your Mind.” The vibes, glockenspiel and piano supply a secure foundation while strings (Zach Brock’s violin in particular), piano and drums contribute a rhythmic ascent which gives the piece an impression of a travelling across paths not yet taken. The final track on CD 1 is another film-like evocation, “The Miniaturist,” which elicits nods to Michael Nyman’s modular minimalism. Here, Clearfield’s keys and Matthew Duval’s vibes fashion minor harmonic variations, while plucked bass and drums infuse the “The Miniaturist” with a softened sense of mobility.
Ulery’s storytelling aspects are forefronted on CD 2. Ulery commences with “Processional,” an extended, pictorial-esque overview where he uses orchestral shadings and timbres on a main theme which shifts back and forth over a waltz-like motif. From there, Ulery turns to songs about seeking love, wondering how far a significant other might go to protect someone special, the discovery of affection and devotion, and how loyalty and support can span time. “Somebody Somewhere” is split into dissimilar portions which might have been better as two different tunes: the introductory and ending segments contain a moderate, blithely jazzy conduit for Auguscik, who sings Ulery’s occasionally clichéd verse with her hushed Polish accent. The middle section is a jazz trio breakout headed by Clearfield’s twisting piano runs, with drums and bass frequently changing the tempo. Ulery undertakes lead vocals on the tender but overtly fluctuated “Broken and Blinded,” which at the outset advances like a clockwork assembly, similar to Steve Reich’s most pop-oriented pieces, but then glides into both straight pop and jazz domains. Ulery admits he wanted to sing his lyrics so he could denote an appropriate cadence to the song’s central character, but his limited range and weak vocal ability is a detriment. Auguscik helms the last three tracks, which maintain the thematic quality of the previous material. The best of the three, “To the Brim,” has a beautiful melody reinforced by Tim Munro’s alto flute and Michael Maccaferri’s bass clarinet, which imbue the tune with an affecting allure. Here again, the arrangement morphs from a gentle hue to ample jazz, and then back to the temperate beginning. While this kind of dynamic diversity can furnish certain compositions with determination, Ulery seems to employ the same methodology too repeatedly. The closing number, “Gone As It Always Was,” retains the orchestrated emphasis from “Processional,” and where Auguscik brings to mind fellow Chicago singer Kurt Elling. Ulery’s nearly two-hour release is idiosyncratic and individualistic: a genre-defying document which is both jazz and not jazz, with crossover appeal to pop and modern classical listeners but without a strong footing in either camp. Most likely it will prove to be a challenge to anyone who chooses to hear what Ulery has produced.
CD 1: Dark Harvest; By a Little Light; To Lose Your Mind; Wilder Years; Shortest Day; The Miniaturist.
CD 2: Processional; Somebody Somewhere; Broken and Blinded; Sow the Deep Seeds; To the Brim; Gone As It Always Was
—Doug Simpson