Nov 8 2014
Quite simply, In the Ivory is a beautiful album. It’s not terribly surprising that this is bassist and composer Matt Ulery‘s latest creation. Taking his recordings one step at a time, following each new album as a subsequent stage is his transformation, it doesn’t come as a shock that In the Ivory is where he’s now at.
Early recordings with his Loom ensemble, like 2008’s Music Box Ballerina and 2011’s Flora.Fauna.Fervor created grace with an odd clockwork precision that blurred the lines between formality and eccentric expressionism. Big ideas seemed to boil just below the surface of tiny sounds.
“Liguria,” from Music Box Ballerina, was a precursor of the larger compositions and bigger sounds to come. The track was accompanied by peculiar songs that came at strange angles and sharp, but fluid tempos. They also, each, held at their center a curious but expertly crafted melody, so that no matter how strange the song became, any slight return to the melody was a sonic compass to regain one’s bearings. On that same album, another signpost of things to come was the guest vocal spot of Grazyna Auguscik on “Slow And Awake,” a flowing ballad that takes on a larger personality as the song progresses.
From Flora.Fauna.Fervor, a song like “Great Full” shows Ulery developing a talent at shifting speeds beneath a blanket of flowing harmonics. With “The Queen,” Ulery slips in delicate phrases amongst a series of heavy punches. And “When I Think of You” displays Ulery’s talent at incorporating a folk music flavor to strange compositions, providing a familiar charm to the unfamiliar. These are all qualities that inform later recordings, including his most recent.
In between those two Loom projects was Ulery’s foray into classical. 2009’s Themes and Scenes did away with the hard edges and delved into a highly personable lyricism. Of greatest significance, the shift in expressions shone a different light on the curious melodies and rhythms that seem to exist on their own form of logic. Themes and Scenes may have been a departure in one respect, but in another, it was simply a new view of existing ideas.
Ulery’s 2012 album By a Little Light was a massive encapsulation of what had come before. It was also a grand statement, expressing a vision of what those beginnings could blossom into. By a Little Light had a bigger sound and the music became more diffuse, but it still had the glue of strong melodies to provide focus to the center of the song and definition to its edges. Ulery channeled his sound through an orchestral line-up that brought an expansive sound to his vision. The addition of strings and a guest vocalist added elements to his compositions that his previous, smaller line-ups only hinted at. The music possessed the gravitas of idea becoming form, dream becoming reality.
For his 2013 release Wake an Echo, Ulery scaled his ensemble back down to a quintet. He looked to recapture some of his Loom’s smaller ensemble magic. Still present were the Big Ideas, but Ulery offered them up in tightly bundled expressions, not unlike staring at the image of a vast horizon in the reflection of a handheld mirror. Gone were the mysterious interludes and oddball sounds and unconventional instrumentation… it’s a standard quintet playing big music and ushering it along in an orderly fashion. It’s the perfect meeting point between eccentricity and stateliness. Where it fell short in excitement, it made up for in intrigue. It was a glance in the rear view mirror as the foot compressed the gas pedal and headed down the road.
That road led to 2014’s In the Ivory.
There’s a defining character absent from In the Ivory. Its beauty doesn’t suffer per se from the scarcity of definition, but it does render the music less memorable. It doesn’t resonate quite as strongly. It lacks a certain panache. It’s uncertain as to whether a distinct personality lies behind that beautiful exterior. And while experiencing the music in the present moment is positively absorbing, once the album has ended, it doesn’t hang around for long.
This is something of a harsh criticism for an album that has attributes worthy of praise, but when you go about making albums with singular personalities and an abundance of character and then offer something that doesn’t achieve those marks, there’s gonna be some blowback.
About In the Ivory…
Opening track “Gave Proof” embodies so much of what’s right and wrong about this recording. The arresting focus of piano and the moodiness of woodwinds set down a strong ambiance. When strings make their entrance, there’s an abiding elegance. But then comes the huge buildup, blurring out everything graceful that came before and replacing it with simple melodrama. It briefly returns to that opening state of grace just before the song’s conclusion, but it never should have left in the first place or, at least, not abandoned it so completely. On prior recordings, Ulery handled the Big Statements with a masterful finesse, letting them bloom to their ultimate fullness without ever blocking the view of the entire song and all of the elements it carried on its wings. That doesn’t happen here.
Grazyna Auguscik reprises her role from By a Little Light. But where previously Ulery surrounded her in waters that gave her vocals the ability to push out ripples and waves and splashes to accentuate the ensemble, now she is left to tread water in heart-string dramatics. “There’s a Reason and Thousand Ways” is, arguably, the album’s strongest tune. It opens with beautiful lines from Auguscik, soft, comforting and bursting with romanticism. Then she exits the stage and the song takes flight. These are nice, sudden changes that possess the element of surprise and, also, unexpected turns of phrase that secure the song’s cohesion. Delightful. Should have been more of that. Could have been more of that. Ulery’s done that before and he’s carried it out with a high level of excellence. The way in which Ulery directs strings to shadow Auguscik’s nuanced vocal inflections is absolutely brilliant. It’s the kind of thing that makes the heart flutter with happiness.
“Write It On the Wall” is more typical of what Auguscik is given to work with. What begins as an alluring tune morphs into a bloated mass of theatrics, lacking subtlety, lacking charm. Similarly, but to a different effect, “When Everything Is Just the Same” starts bland, ends bland and never dares to stretch out in the space between.
It’s much the same cast as Ulery worked with on previous recordings, including the Eighth Blackbird ensemble and Loom. Pianist Rob Clearfield contributes those qualities most associated with jazz on this recording. “Mary Shelley” has him leading the way, and “Black Squirrel” sees him take a nice jittery turn, providing some cuts and etchings in the otherwise flawless veneer. Jon Deitemyer enhances the song in similar fashion, his drums percolating just below the surface of things. But like so many of the other tracks, it becomes an opaque fog of muddled ensemble play occasionally broken by pro forma Big Statements. Similarly, but taking an opposite approach is “Visceral,” which wisely trades in bombast for exploration of the rhythm’s details.
“Resilin” also has that urgent tempo, spurring on soloists to match its pace by skipping across its surface. It synchs up with “Gave Proof,” but anchors itself to the deep resonance of cello, which, actually, is a nice infusion of differentiation, but it begins to sound a bit old. It’s the right ingredient for the wrong recipe. “Seeker” also treads over similar ground. Much of this album treads over similar ground.
And yet, the album possesses an undeniable beauty. It’s just that an abounding sameness is more likely to lead to dullness than it will inspiration.
In the Ivory is a gorgeous album and you should consider buying it. But for having traveled such an interesting path, Ulery has ended up in a not so interesting place.
Sometimes simply beautiful is not enough.
Your album personnel: Matt Ulery (double bass, voice), Jon Deitemyer (drums, cymbals, percussion), Rob Clearfield (piano), Zach Brock (violin), Yvonne Lam (violin), Dominic Johnson (viola), Nicholas Photinos (cello), Timothy Munro (alto flute), Michael Maccaferri (clarinets), Gregory Beyer (vibes, marimba, maracas), Grazyna Auguscik (vocals), and guests: Sarah Marie Young, Erik Hall, and Corbett Lunsford (vocals).
Released on Greenleaf Music.
Music from the Chicago scene.
Some other stuff you should probably know:
You can read my recommendation of Ulery’s By a Little Light (LINK), which received the #4 slot on the Bird is the Worm Best of 2012 list. I still listen to it often and highly recommend it.
You can read my recommendation of Ulery’s Wake an Echo (LINK), which I didn’t enjoy quite as much as his previous releases, though revisiting it in preparation for the In the Ivory write-up, I found myself hearing things I hadn’t recalled previously and now have it back in my rotation.