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Bassist Matt Ulery, Sifting Stars

Sifting Starsthe eighth album from Matt Ulery, finds the prolific bassist in the company of a large ensemble, aptly named the Sifting Stars Studio Orchestra.

Anchored by pianist Rob Clearfield, a significant voice in Ulery’s music over the past decade (and labelmate; his “Wherever You’re Starting From” was released on Woolgathering earlier this year), Sifting Stars is an art-song epic of long form song structures that is at once beautiful and haunting. Says Ulery of Sifting Stars:

“I tend to write emotionally. That is to say, when I reach in to the abstract space of musical possibilities, the tiny bit I can capture, I tend to let these transient melodies/rhythms and subsequent harmonies, increasingly familiar somehow, guide me through the most natural dynamic and flow of energy from event to event. These fragile moments, subtle and monumental, occupy long form song structures in Sifting Stars.

This music and lyrics are concerned with fantasy and redemption, and Ulery, in his own words, exploited every opportunity to coax the most lush and expressive motion.

“While this collection of music is perhaps stylistically furthest away from my jazz informed roots than in previous work, with this classical instrumentation and atmosphere, brimming with romantic gestures, and it’s mostly through-composed nature, I feel that much of the harmonic and rhythmic palettes still reflects my relationship with jazz and new music through a certain rhythmic aesthetic, emotional intent, and vibe,” he says.

The opening piece, “The Remanent of Everything,” was originally commissioned and performed by the Brazos Valley Symphony Orchestra in 2017. Using this opportunity to his advantage, he created a series of more music- the orchestral art songs “Pictures in Grey,” “I’m So Shallow,” and “The Prairie is a Rolling Ocean.” The first two tracks, scored for full symphonic orchestra, include members of the Grammy-award winning ensemble Eighth Blackbird as well as singing by Grazyna Auguscik, one of Ulery’s long-time collaborators. For the following two, Ulery leaves out the strings, adds more brass to the orchestra and features singing by Katie Ernst (bassist/composer/vocalist of Twin Talk). Clearfield is featured here in his usual brilliance, especially on “The Prairie…” where he performs a particularly thoughtful and elegant improvised piano solo woven into the orchestration. The finale of Sifting Stars is “Ida,” a multi-movement work for brass quintet inspired by the Ivan Albright paintingInto the World There Came a Soul Called Ida, on view at the Art Institute in Chicago. “Ida” was originally commissioned and performed by Axiom Brass (also heard now on this recording) in 2017. “Brass is a deep breath. In this fantasy score, I imagined what Ida was thinking and feeling,” says Ulery, “The painting, extremely detailed and grotesque, inspired me to explore some of the emotions in the subject rather than to try and emulate the scrupulousness.”

In writing for these ensembles of established instrumentation, Ulery experimented with new idioms and sonic possibilities.

“And as usual, I’m utilizing the album medium to produce this music for studio orchestra in Sifting Stars, attempting to put something beautiful and fanciful out into the world.”

To celebrate the release of Sifting Stars, Ulery will be performing at Chicago’s Green Mill on October 19th and 20th.

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