Matt Ulery

Sifting Stars
(Woolgathering)

Is it possible to package an experience as epic as an orchestra and engaging as a museum gallery for the jazz listener? Chicago bassist Matt Ulery has made the effort and proved himself a master of the macabre in the process. Sifting Stars is an arthouse opus, rethinking jazz structure, beauty and realism, Ulery approaching each with the utmost subtlety.

Spacious and suspenseful, Sifting Stars celebrates life as it laments it—“Ida: The Fleeting Nature Of Time And Beauty” being particularly notable. Ulery bends lush arrangements with subtle swing and irony, made both beautiful and grotesque by his tactful crew of brass and strings. There’s an ebb and flow in the muted restraint and sweeping cinematic moments, including Rob Clearfield’s brooding piano narrative on “The Prairie Is A Rolling Ocean.”

Hands down, though, Sifting Stars’ benchmark is the multi-movement introspective Ida, inspired by the aging visage of the song’s namesake in Ivan Albright’s “Into The World There Came A Soul Called Ida.” The oil painting has been a fixture at the Art Institute of Chicago, and likely drew the bassist’s attention during a visit. As the talented Axiom Brass quintet breathes jazz texture and phrasing into this symphonic masterwork, Ulery personifies and empathizes with the painting’s subject. It’s as touching as it is delightfully haunting.