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Matt Ulery is best known as a modern jazz bassist and composer based in Chicago. Like many of the string bassists of the early days, he has also mastered the “brass bass.” For his 10th CD as a leader, Ulery performs a set of originals that pay tribute to the 1920s while sounding very much like the 2020s. Sticking exclusively to sousaphone, he leads a sextet comprising trumpeter James Davis, tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi, trombonist Steve Duncan, pianist Paul Bedal and drummer Quin Kirchner through a particularly intriguing set of music.
Propelled by his rhythmic and supportive lines on sousaphone, Ulery mixes together older-style syncopations and rhythms, which make one think of tap dancers; written and improvised ensembles; and the pure joy of early jazz with much more modern harmonies. The music sometimes recalls Charles Mingus — albeit with a more pronounced New Orleans flavor — while the eccentric chord changes hint at Thelonious Monk.
Although the atmosphere of this set makes one think of the 1920s, and the beginning of “Jelly” is a direct quote of “The Chant” (a piece popularized but not written by Jelly Roll Morton), Ulery does not copy the past and instead creates new music that will keep listeners guessing.
There are plenty of mostly brief individual solos — trombonist Steve Duncan in particular excels in this setting — but the emphasis is on the ensembles and the moods set by the pieces. To name a few highlights, “Clown Drum” sounds like slightly demented circus music; “So Long, Toots” is a whimsical swing piece filled with hot riffing behind the lead voices; “Droppin’ In” provides glimpses of stride piano along with rambunctious ensembles; and “Soup Talk” is a slow strut. After so many spirited performances, it is surprising that the program concludes in a more downbeat mood with the slow dirge “Feed” and a rather dark “Clover.”
Matt Ulery’s Pollinator makes for an intriguing listen and an unusual tribute to the early swing music of a century ago. — Scott Yanow