Matt Ulery, whose Music Box Ballerina was a surprise top ten selection for JazzChicago in 2008 (see our full list here) follows that album with yet another stellar release, Themes and Scenes. This time, Ulery delves even further into the cinematic modern chamber music genre that influenced Music Box. This is not really a jazz album, but it is nevertheless a compelling document of a rising young composer whose striking compositions are memorable and who seems poised to ascend into public acclaim while he helps bring chamber music into a new stage.
Ulery's work is infused with various elements, but perhaps most influential is the music of Europe (especially Eastern Europe). It is not unusual to find eclectic instrumentation such as tubas, accordions, strings and music box-like chimes haunting the scenes like long forgotten memories of ancestral pasts. Opener "The Duel" includes Ulery not only on his usual double bass, but also a chiming Wurlitzer electronic piano as well as tuba. Nick Photinos on cellos and Zach Brock on violins comprise a string quartet of sorts, while Thad Franklin (a member of Ulery's Loom) adds stately trumpets and flugel horns, with Michael Caskey on tasteful percussion. When the lush pastoral countryside gives way to a waltz, one might find oneself dreaming of Vienna, or more likely, Budapest or Prague.
"The Farm" follows and features the same group plus Eastern Blok guitarist Goran Ivanovic. This exceptional piece reveals a delicious hint of Phillip Glass modernism. The changes Ulery constructs are fresh and appealing, while still connecting to the music of the past. As a European-American myself, I admit that Ulery's music touches me deeply at my core, actually recalling music I absorbed as a child from my immigrant grandparents.
"October" brings keyboardist Rob Clearfield (also a member of Loom) onto the stage, and his accordion work is again a highlight, as it was on Music Box. Zach Brock, who is well known in Chicago circles for his jazz work, shows a wonderful feel for the classical material. Meanwhile, "Light Sleeper" brings on the fairy dust in a piece that reminds me somewhat at times of Robert Schumann's "Scenes from Childhood" as if interpreted by Glass. Percussionist Caskey deserves mention for his undercurrent here.
More Schumann influence perhaps on "The Immigrant," but Ulery's arrangement is modern and exciting, vibrant and alive; this is the direction more classical music should be exploring. "It's Been a Long Time" continues along the same road, but is heightened by an active Caskey on a array of percussion. "Would You Remember My Song" lurches along humorously like a drunken organ grinder with Ulery on harmonium, vocals and whistling, and makes for a fun way to conclude a short, but enjoyable recording.