Matt Ulery is a bassist and composer based in Chicago. He is a creative force to be reckoned with. His bass playing is imaginative, supportive, authoritative, and flawless. His composing is incredibly beautiful and moving, and evokes different musics from around the globe while somehow remaining completely personal. Matt has been an inspiration to me ever since I’ve lived in Chicago. He’s also a great cook, to boot.
On June 3rd, 2010, I sat down with Matt for a long overdue, lengthy conversation about music. Please also visit mattulery.com, where you’ll find audio, his calendar, and his cooking blog! Feel free to leave comments. Thanks for reading…many more interviews to come!
DM: So Matt, I first met you when I moved to Chicago in the fall of 2005. I remember hearing you play in a few different contexts and really being struck by how defined your musicality and concept were at such a young age. Can you talk a bit about what your musical background was before this and what led you up to that point?
MU: What was going on at that time?
DM: Well there’s one gig that sticks in my head where you were playing at Katerina’s with Jordan Baskin (piano), Jon Deitemyer (drums), and Doug Stone (tenor sax). It blew me away how you approached playing over the forms of the tunes in such a creative and organic way. It made me get lost in all of it in a very good way. It felt extremely creative and spontaneous while still adhering to a form.
MU: I remember that time. My good friend, Zach Brock, the violinist, had just moved to New York City. We had a gig there once a month with Zach, it was his thing. After he moved, we started bringing in a different guest artist every month. Jon had just moved to Chicago. He was coming in to Chicago a lot to do these gigs while he was finishing up school at North Texas to help transition himself in to the scene. It was one of those moments where you start playing with someone and it just clicks right away.
DM: You’re speaking of Jon in particular?
MU: Yeah. There was an immediate trust between us. Because of the nature of the music we were playing, we would just take a lot of chances, and Katerina’s was a place where it felt comfortable to do so. It just felt like home. Because Zach, Jordan, and I were already such good friends, and then Jon came in, the whole relationship had already blossomed before Zach left town. After Zach left, we had a different guest composer/musician come in and play every month with Jordan, Jon, and me. One of those gigs was with Doug Stone. It wasn’t like we were slaves to any guest artist’s writing, though. The purpose was to have the guest come in, and have us do our thing over it. We had one rehearsal before the gig. As a trio, we obviously played often, but each gig there was a different fourth musician, which changes the chemistry drastically. It helps keep things fresh, but we still had that basis of success with the trio.
DM: Let’s go back to when you started playing music. Can you talk about how you got into jazz and other types of music? You’re obviously a very versatile musician and there are a lot of different types of music one can hear in your composing and playing.
MU: I wanted to play the electric bass guitar because I loved Nirvana. My brother played the drums in a punk band and I wanted to play punk rock, too. I was 12, or so. My dad had this acoustic guitar from when he was in the army that I would play, but it only had two or three strings left and they just so happened to be the low strings. It’s a funny, obvious story, but I realized, ‘why don’t I just get a bass?’ My parents bought me one for Christmas that year. Nirvana’s Nevermind was a very important album for me. I was so excited to have the instrument that I just went downstairs the day I got it and learned all the songs off that album…because they’re so simple to learn, but are musically more complex if you think about it. That was a heavy experience. Then I backtracked from there and got into punk, ska, and reggae; those were pretty big influences. At the same time, blues and big band music were always there through middle school and high school from the academic world.
DM: So you played in school bands?
DM: Was that upright bass?
MU: No. I didn’t start playing upright bass until I was a junior in high school. I was playing electric bass and tuba in the school band. It’s always been clear for me that there’s so many different ways to do music.
DM: How did you start playing upright bass?
MU: At some point when I was a freshman in high school, I joined the Rock Valley College Community Big Band, based in Rockford, IL, which is where I grew up. We met every wednesday night to rehearse big band music from the ’30’s to the present. I was only 13 or 14 at the time and I could read notes but I had never tried to improvise a walking bass line. This experience really forced me to learn how to do that. Eventually, I started playing some small group gigs with the conductor of the band, who plays clarinet and saxophone. Then, by playing around for a couple of years, playing tunes, it became clear to me that I needed to get an upright bass. Older musicians in town would just tell me if I wanted to take this further, I’d need to learn the upright. At that time, I kind of only knew of the upright from that Primus video, “Mr. Krinkle.”
DM: [laughs and sings bass line]
MU: I had never even thought about playing one because it seemed so daunting. My mom used to tell me, ‘no one plays that instrument.’ But a lot of the music I was getting into at the time is traditionally played on upright. So, I bought a cheap one from a guy in town and just started learning.
DM: Then you ended up attending Roosevelt University in Chicago for your undergraduate degree. Are there any meaningful memories you have transitioning from high school into the university setting?
MU: I didn’t even look at any other colleges. I knew that when I would graduate high school, I wanted to go to Chicago and just do music. When I was in the All-State Combo in high school, which Greg Ward and Doug Stone [important contributors to Chicago music on alto and tenor, respectively] were also in, the Roosevelt rhythm section teachers came down and did a clinic. I didn’t really know about Roosevelt at the time. I decided I’d just try and go there, and then I just did it. It was great for me, especially the first couple of years because my bass teacher, Scott Mason taught me a lot of things I needed to know about jazz theory and colors and how to control these aspects in the music. He also, of course, taught me a lot about the bass and also about piano.
The other big experience I remember from Roosevelt is getting to study with David Bloom for a couple semesters. For a couple of years, he was brought in as an adjunct teacher, so I could just go across the street to his school and take classes there. This experience really opened me up to thinking more about concept and patience. You know, really trying to create some music, emotion, and events. Basically something that’s worth hearing. As much as I think about all those things now, I didn’t up until that point. That was a pretty heavy experience for me.
DM: There were also a lot of great students at Roosevelt when you were there. Off the top of my head I remember Rob Clearfield [piano], Jordan Baskin [piano], Tim Haldeman [tenor], Thad Franklin [trumpet]…I’m sure I’m missing some…
MU: Yeah, also Ryan Cohen [piano], Zach Brock…I was playing in a group with Taku Akiyama, Tim Haldeman, and Nori Tanaka [drums]. We were in a quartet group class with David Bloom.
DM: Weirdly enough, Ryan is the only one out of those guys you mentioned that still lives here, but all of them had a really big impact on Chicago jazz.
MU: Yeah, I was playing Smoke Daddy every week Taku, Tim, and Nori. That was a great opportunity for me to learn some really interesting modern jazz tunes, as opposed to just playing standards. It was a great platform to use these new ideas and concepts. These are guys who are always willing to talk about the music. That was just one outlet, though, for a specific thing.
DM: I’m sure that the Smoke Daddy gig contributed a lot to what you do, though. For me, weekly steady gigs are invaluable because you do get to play with the same people every week and develop a repertoire or learn new tunes. The best part, though, is when a chemistry is developed and the goal becomes to mine into that deeper and deeper. Otherwise, it can become really boring, really quick! So, the musicians are forced to open up and try new things and be open to others trying new things.
MU: Yeah. That’s specifically important for any group, but it’s also important for every individual to learn how to do that–just how to deal with playing in a band. Or how to deal playing with a group of musicians that isn’t a band. Or how to deal with playing in a band and being open to having someone new join, if only for one gig. We would randomly invite different pianists and guitarists to play with us at the Smoke Daddy gig. In that situation, it’s important to not push that person out because you think, ‘well, this is how we play, so you have to play like this.’ It should be acknowledging that this new person has a strong musical personality so, ‘let’s figure out how to balance this.’ We’re all still learning how to do that. Taking the lead here and there, or not.
DM: It’s like a tightrope walk.
MU: Yeah, it’s such a sophisticated thing.
DM: That being said, now you’re at a point in your career where people call you to do what you do. They like the way you play and they want that in their band. How did you get involved with some of the bands in which you’re a sideman, such as Eastern Blok, Grazyna Auguscik’s band, and Zach Brock’s band?
MU: Somehow all those groups are connected and I’m trying to remember how. Zach and I became friends in 2003. We did one session together playing tunes with Jordan Baskin and then just started hanging out a lot. For whatever reason, we didn’t play together again for about a year after that. Then we started playing in each others’ bands and developing all these things.
My involvement with Eastern Blok and Grazyna are very connected. I was playing with Ron Perrillo [piano] a fair amount at the time. This was around 2004-5. We were playing one night at the Green Mill with George Fludas [drums] and Jeff Parker [guitar]. Jeff and Ron had never played together before then.
DM: Wow, that’s interesting.
MU: I had never played with Jeff before either, I don’t think. Grazyna [vocals] was in the audience that night. I had seen her band before at the Green Mill and really liked it. Ron told Grazyna that she should hire me sometime. So Grazyna and I met, started hanging out, and then eventually I became her regular bass player. It’s been like that for about five years now. She gets me involved in all sorts of great projects. Now I feel like we’re really collaborating.
As far as Eastern Blok goes, I was playing a duo jobbing gig with Perrillo. Goran Ivanovich [guitarist and leader of Eastern Blok] was in the other room playing solo guitar. I didn’t know him at all. I went in to see him play on our break and thought it sounded great. Then he came and heard us and that was it. The jobbing band leader who facilitated the whole gig called me and told me that Goran was looking for a bass player to start a band with. I thought it was kind of weird, you know, it’s not how things usually work. So again, I met another musician that I collaborate with often indirectly through Ron Perrillo, who I actually haven’t seen in a really long time.
Now, Eastern Blok has been a band for six years. We play with Grazyna, too. We all play with Zach Brock here and there as well. It’s all so incestuous, which is good.
DM: Speaking of Grazyna’s band, you guys did a tour with Kurt Rosenwinkel recently, right?
MU: Yeah, about a year ago.
Here is a video of the band playing Ulery’s composition, “Sorrow’s Secret.”
DM: First of all, when I heard that you were all doing the tour, it really made perfect sense to me. I was really excited when I heard about it because the way you and Jon Deitemyer play together seems like it would fit really well with what Kurt does. In my mind, you and Jon are a classic Chicago rhythm section. Musicians know that the two of you will always bring that vibe to the table. You guys make it so easy. It seems to be so creatively logical, if that makes any sense at all! I remember speaking to both you and Jon after the tour and it sounded like the two of you talked with Kurt a lot about the music during the tour and how to work on the group sound.
MU: Yeah. First, I think I can speak for Jon as well when I say that we’ve been into pretty much everything that Kurt has ever done. He didn’t know us, but we knew him. That situation is always challenging because some people have preconceptions about what the person they’re going to be playing with sounds like. I, knowing Kurt’s playing already, expected him to play a certain way. The point of me bringing this up is that the whole trust issue, which we talked about before, is already imbalanced because somebody is going to be thinking ‘I know which way this should go, and the other musicians should follow.’ So, Jon and I had of course played all of Grazyna’s music many times before. We know ‘how it goes.’ Of course, it’s really open music and always different. That being said, we’d played some of these tunes 100 times. Kurt had never played any of these tunes, but he was obviously very familiar with his tunes that we played. So there’s always going to be somebody who thinks they know a little bit more than the others in these situations. In fact, these things happen every time we play with anybody.
DM: Definitely, and what you’re talking about obviously relates back to when we talking about bringing a new musician into the equation and being open to letting things happen…both on Kurt’s and your end.
MU: Right, and that’s why it is sometimes most successful when we just get together with whoever…even if we don’t know them, or we’ve never played the material, or especially when playing free…because there aren’t any preconceptions.
Anyway, that tour was cool, because we played a good amount of shows over two or three weeks. After the first couple of nights, after feeling it out, then we really started to talk about the music, specifically Kurt, Jon, and I. We really spoke the same language about music, a certain sensibility about talking about things like jazz, theory, and energy. I really learned a lot about balancing the energy of the music in a specific sense. Not just a flighty, kind of thing, like ‘you know, energy, man!’ It was much more specific. We talked about moving the energy and constantly trying to balance it.
Honestly, I felt for the first couple of nights that we were playing the music and this guitar player [Rosenwinkel] was kind of shredding over it. It didn’t feel sensitive to me, but, again, I’m admitting that I’m going into this situation with preconceptions regarding how I’ve played this music. Then when we talked about it, Kurt was saying, “Man, I went to this place and you didn’t go there.” He was, in reality, trying to balance the lack of collective energy. So, when I thought he was playing too much, for lack of a better description, what really was the case was that Jon and I weren’t balancing it enough. Not that he’s the constant soloist or the leader, because he wasn’t; but that’s what he was feeling.
It’s really hard to say. Again, it comes back to this trust thing–why should we follow him? Because we know him and we like him? Even in a local gig situation, there’s already going to be one musician who has more respect for the other musician.
So, we just started to get a feel for each other and Jon and I just started to comp a lot better. Jon really just came out. Some of the music we were playing was really beautiful and through composed. Some of it was pretty free and wide open and almost totally improvised other than having some lyrics. That being said, it was potentially loud, high energy, raw music. I don’t know, something happened. We kept talking about the music.
I want to say something about one conversation we were having. We were eating lunch somewhere. First of all, Jon is such a sensitive drummer, so he said something like, “well I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes.” Kurt responded by saying, “Well I’m taking a solo and taking it here and it’s not going there. From section to section, the energy is not continuing into the next section.” So basically, we weren’t necessarily accompanying him well enough.
DM: Did this energy transfer feel like it was constantly moving upward in a song, or did it vary?
MU: Yeah, it varied, and that’s why it’s hard to talk about it. Generally we think the shape is up, but it isn’t necessarily. It just means, somebody do something to balance this.
DM: That can mean many things, but that’s a good way of thinking about it. I find myself thinking about that a lot, too, especially in free music. Sometimes balance means playing with the musician and complementing that musician, but sometimes it can mean playing exactly the opposite in any way in terms of density or dynamics. Is that what you got from that, too?
MU: Yes, these are the kinds of things I’ve been thinking a lot about. Of course, there’s so many variables there.
DM: Right, and there’s not always one right answer.
MU: Yeah, it’s all playing with the chemistry set. Regarding the stepping on the toes statement–during the conversation, Kurt told us he was just in his hotel room watching an Elvin Jones master class video. I haven’t seen it, but apparently a big point Elvin brought up is that nobody’s going to step on anyone’s toes if everyone on stage has the same objective, and that is to make the best music possible. That’s simple, but just to hear that is great. I think about that all the time now when I’m playing.
DM: That has a lot to do with trusting yourself. It’s trusting what you contribute is going to be worthy, and not thinking too much about it.
MU: Yeah. Obviously if you’re thinking you’re stepping on someone’s toes while you’re playing, you’re scared and that fear is completely taking control of the music, as far as your input is concerned.
DM: And that’s when the music ends.
MU: If you’re scared, you can’t bring the right energy to the music and you can’t balance what’s going on around you because you’re concerned about something. You’re thinking about something that doesn’t actually exist instead of just listening and playing…easier said than done [laughs].
DM: Of course. We all struggle with that, though it’s something I’ve been trying to develop over the years. Just trying to achieve this sense of total fearlessness. I think it’s completely necessary if you’re trying to make meaningful music. Music that moves people requires a complete lack of fear.
MU: I agree, totally. That concept is definitely what I’m thinking a lot about. In part thanks to Kenny Werner’s book [Effortless Mastery] which introduced me to that idea. That approach to life. It’s the same everywhere and has been written about forever. To be aware of that is very important so that when the fear comes, and it’s always happening, you can do what you have to do. You can’t really tell someone how to get over that, though. It’s very personal and specific.
DM: Yeah. When I feel that fear creeping up inside of me, it’s just a switch that I turn on that says, “let go.” Let go of your inhibitions and expectations and just decide in that moment to throw all that out. Sometimes it takes me to stop playing, clear everything in my mind, and just react on a very visceral level to the music. You get caught up in thinking about the form, the harmony, and if you’re locking up with everyone, but if you can stop and let that all go and just respond, I think that helps. What has worked for you?
MU: I hear you, but there’s different ways of talking and thinking about that based on what you’re actually playing. For example, what style are you playing? Who are you playing with? Are you playing through-compsed music?
DM: Yeah maybe you can’t stop playing then!
MU: Are you playing something that has a form? There’s so many variables. For example, just take playing a jazz tune that everyone knows and everyone thinks the way they think about it. Say you’re thinking about the chord changes when you’re improvising over them, maybe because you don’t have this tune really internalized. What I like to practice is switching gears and just listening to the sound, listening to where I think the harmony is going. This is more like I’m singing now as opposed to playing. When I do this, it seems like I’m playing totally different. Sometimes when I stop thinking about the chord changes, I’m still playing them, but it sounds so much better and I feel so much more connected with it. That’s one small example of letting go and pushing those fears out. The fears like, ‘do I know these changes?’ or ‘what’s coming up next?’ You know, ‘I wanna make sure I nail that when it comes around.’ But really the better, more soulful music comes out when you can internalize something. Again, though, that’s really only one small example of trying to do that.
DM: Yeah it’s a very broad subject.
MU: It seems to be easier to practice when you’re improvising freely with other people because there really is nothing wrong that you can play. Whatever decision you make, whether it be fear-based or not, is going to make the other people react.
DM: On the other side of the coin, when you’re playing freely, you can play anything you want, so how do you choose? Like you said, there’s no right or wrong answer, but sometimes that, specifically, can be kind of daunting. The possibilities are limitless and that can be overwhelming. Is there a certain way that you deal with a situation like that?
MU: I’m a big believer of creating our own limitations in every aspect of creativity. I feel that these limitations exist naturally everywhere. For example, certain plants grow in certain places because they’re limited to these nutrients and the animals around them. Everything coexisting is constantly limited and it works. It makes sense. So, when playing in a free situation, I don’t feel like the word ‘free’ is a great way to describe what I like to do. When playing, I think it’s possible to limit yourself and still not be thinking about or preconceiving the music too much. Limitations being note choices…that’s one example. It’s really hard to talk about in a general way.
DM: I think I know what you’re talking about. Basically, it really plays into making free music compositional, which is obviously a goal in any type of music we play. I feel the same way. I’ll try to put these limitations on myself even when I’m interacting with other musicians. No matter what they play, I will play within those limitations and have it somehow complement what they’re doing. It creates this compositional feeling to it so you’re not just throwing in everything but the kitchen sink because then it will sound the same way every time.
MU: Yeah we’ve all heard people do that, too. I’m constantly unsatisfied with some of the music I hear, here or there, played by musicians that are playing free. That’s my personal opinion. At any given time, if it’s too free, there’s no compositional element to it. There’s not enough limitations. There’s nothing wrong with getting on some sort of vibe when playing something, sticking with it, and then stopping. You know, that’s a piece of music. To me, that’s more interesting because I like thoughtful composition.
It all depends on who’s playing. Maybe two of the four people in a a group are conscious of this compositional potential. Maybe the other two haven’t thought about it as much and think that playing a bunch of weird sounds and extended techniques is free. I think there’s absolutely nothing wrong playing, as I said, ineloquently, weird sounds. There’s nothing wrong with that if that’s what’s happening.
DM: I get it. The more we learn as musicians and the older we get, the more clear it becomes. I find myself these days, more often than not, taking things out of my playing. Stripping it down to the simplest way I can get whatever it is I’m trying to say across to the audience. I find myself playing less, and really just trying to get to the point and stop playing. I try to get to the point in a very logical and compositional way. A way that has boundaries. It’s a logical way to communicate. Sometimes, I’ll set limitations out of boredom. I’ll set up these traps for myself and try to play my way out of them, just to see if I can do it.
MU: Yeah, I think that’s fantastic, and that’s why people like you are my favorite musicians because you’re thinking about this kind of stuff. It’s a very sophisticated way to think about playing music because you’re trying to say something. You’re just saying something and not trying to prove something. I think there’s ways of practicing that. Not even in performance, but every time you pick up your instrument.
We all know musicians who just pick up their instrument and make sure their fingers can move as fast as possible right away. Like you, I like to set up traps for myself. Sometimes I pick up my instrument and I’m afraid I won’t be able to play it. Somedays feel better than others. There’s really no reason for that. It’s all mental, it has to be, unless you physically haven’t moved your muscles and there’s a warming up that has to happen.
DM: Right, but even all that aside, some days it works and some days it doesn’t.
MU: What I want to try to achieve is to not care. I might not pick up my instrument before my gig tonight, but I don’t really have to do anything. All I have to do is play the notes that I’m able to play at that moment. If I’m truly just listening and allowing it to come out, then there’s nothing that’s going to be holding me back physically. Then eventually, I’ll warm up physically.
When we play faster tempos, for me, it’s a lot of muscle memory and a fearless sense of going for it, but I don’t necessarily hear that stuff. I can’t necessarily sing a really fast line, but if I play it, it’s probably going to be some sort of muscle memory-based thing, to be honest. But I don’t have to worry about not being able to play if I’m just playing what comes naturally. Then again, I can switch gears and do a muscle memory-based thing if I need to.
DM: Yeah. I definitely don’t sit down and practice guitar as much as I used to. There’s playing the guitar, learning music that I need to learn, and listening to music, but a lot of it for me now is more in the mental space. Thinking about what makes music work and what makes it fail. Why does a record sound great? Why does another not move me as much? What can I learn from either? How does my playing relate and interact with those recordings? How would I respond in this situation or that? So if I have practiced the music up to a point where I’ve really absorbed it, the gig just becomes easy and fun and the music will be whatever it’s going to be.
MU: That’s why I think it’s important to play as many different kinds of music as possible and really work on it and play with different people. You and I are lucky enough to play stylistically versatile instruments where we have those opportunities.
I guess it’s not necessarily playing with as many people as possible, because why play with someone who’s not nice? It’s funny–what fun we can have playing with musicians who are on a more novice level. Maybe more naive. None of that really matters. It’s worth playing some pop tunes with people that just started playing If we can have fun with them. There’s a certain excitement there, and a certain sincerity. It’s in opposition to playing with musicians who are schooled in jazz who know a lot about theory–that might not be as fun…somehow.
DM: It’s hard to even put that into words.
MU: Yeah. My point being, it’s great to explore all kinds of music with all kinds of different players.
DM: At the same time, there are definitely certain experiences where I’ve definitely gotten my ass kicked, and it wasn’t fun, and people were mean. Those experiences have painfully shaped me into a better musician and pointed me in a better direction. Those are necessary experiences, not because the music was great. In many of them, the music wasn’t good because I wasn’t holding up my end of the bargain. Nevertheless, it’s a personal experience that’s very important to me.
MU: That’s a great point. I mean, why should I say I’d only be playing with somebody on my level or worse? I totally agree with you. Getting your ass kicked is an absolutely necessary thing and it should happen to all of us a lot more often.
DM: And hopefully you only get your ass kicked on the bandstand and not off. [laughs]
I still have plenty of experiences where I play with musicians and I just feel awful afterwards. Mainly because I don’t feel like I’m playing up to their level. It’s gotten easier as I’ve gained more experience. Of course, every gig still counts, but it’s not a life or death situation like it used to be. We’ve both been playing in Chicago enough where people know us and they know how we play. It’s not like we have to prove ourselves over and over. That being said, there’s still nights where I’ll go home feeling like shit.
MU: I don’t know about you, but sometimes I start to feel fear when someone walks into the room during a gig. You know, you’re feeling great and, all of a sudden, this person comes into the room and you start thinking about them. It doesn’t matter if it’s a great musician from out of town or my girlfriend. Just someone I know. They infect me. It’s a good thing to be aware of. It’s not about trying to prove something as much as it is me wanting this person to like the music. I want to avoid these kinds of things and I’m getting better at it.
DM: No one is immune to that.
DM: I’ve always thought you have a very original way of playing the bass. Some of the things you do also seem very technically challenging. These are things I don’t believe I’ve seen other bass players do before. Were any of these things ever consciously decided upon?
MU: Well, I’ve studied some pretty standard bass technique. I think from improvising free and playing my instrument, with all the specifics that play into it, I just started trying new things. I feel I’ve developed some things just by practicing and playing and not thinking about it too much…just trying to play in tune!
DM: That’s a huge challenge on your chosen instrument. One thing I specifically remember you doing was playing a low note with your thumb while playing a note in the high register with your fingers in a different rhythm.
MU: I don’t remember specifically where that came from, although Mingus was pretty into that kind of thing. He was way stronger than I am. He was playing a bigger bass, higher action, gut strings. Maybe some of it comes from seeing videos of him. I’m sure a lot of classical players are aware of some of this stuff.
I like the idea, though, of trying to mimic the sound of other instruments on my instrument. Because of playing in Eastern Blok, I’ve checked out a lot of folk music from Eastern Europe, specifically Bulgaria and Macedonia. For instance, one instrument from there is a tamburitza, which is a mandolin-like instrument which always played in tremelo with a pick. Of course, I don’t play with a pick, but given the limitations of our instruments in the band, we try to look to folk music to get some different colors for our sound. Folk instruments are always a good place to start. So, for instance, trying to play a piece of music written for a different instrument has crept into my playing. If I’m striving to play in tune all the time, which I am, these things should come to the surface and become part of the whole muscle memory thing.
If I’m trying to play a certain style of music, I’m probably going to try and play in the style of the people that I like…physically, I mean. For example, if I’m playing electric bass on some R&B tune from the 60’s, I’m probably not going to play much with two fingers in the right hand. Similarly, with upright playing jazz, just look at all the greats. Let’s take Ray Brown, for example. There’s a certain thing in the right hand, and there’s not much to it [performs motion with right hand]. It’s good to be aware of these things so you can switch gears.
I’ve had a recent, drastic change in my playing. A year ago, actually. When I’m playing a specific style, say swing or bebop, which I do pretty much on a daily basis, if I use, say this Ray Brown right hand style as a basis, it feels and sounds better because everyone else in the band is thinking similarly about where their playing is coming from. I can’t just play the way I want to play because I think it’s right because that’s going to sacrifice the music if the drummer is playing in the style of ‘this person.’
DM: So, if the drummer sounds like Philly Joe, you might use PC as a base to jump from.
MU: Yeah, and the most important factor in this situation [the right hand] is not changing very much within this situation…just a lot of the side of the first finger. It’s a certain motion that happens. You can play PC’s notes, but it won’t sound anything like him if you’re alternating between two fingers. It’s similar for guitar players with regards to Wes Montgomery’s thumb.
DM: Right, of course.
MU: To be bass specific, though, it’s a long string. There’s a physical thing that happens with the string. It reacts differently depending on, of course, where in the scale you pluck it, but also the direction you move the string. If you picture playing the bass, you’re doing that right hand, first finger, side of the hand, parallel to the neck thing…if you play it that way, it reacts a whole different way than if you play it with your hand perpendicular to the string.
DM: It’s the same with guitar. You can evoke a certain musician’s sound with the specific technique that you choose to use. You learn by playing and transcribing. You have to figure out how to make the guitar sound like that and, when you do, it becomes part of your arsenal of sounds.
MU: Yeah, it’s great to learn how to recreate sounds of style, or of certain people because that’s just how we learn. Other things, however, I’ve just developed myself, but they may not be appropriate for a particular situation.
DM: Let’s switch gears and talk about Loom. I always have the hardest time describing the music. It’s completely personal to you, but has all these things that creep up every now and then. It’s kind of eastern European, kind of South American, kind of film score, kind of rock, kind of jazz…I mean, we’re all jazz musicians!
MU: yeah, that description sounds good! That’s kind of what I would say, but I don’t like saying it.
DM: Of course, because it trivializes the depth of the music.
MU: But people need to know what to think about it, about all music, if it’s not in a blatant style.
DM: Yes, to a fault. You know, either you enjoy it, or you don’t, and then you form your own thoughts, if you like, about where it came from or what it sounds like. Just take it for what it is, and try not to have any expectations about it. That’s a whole different topic, though!
Can you talk about your experience with folk music? I know that’s a broad subject, but I know you have experience with all these different musics from around the world, more so than most people. What got you into certain types of those musics and do you feel they’ve affected the way you write and play?
MU: First of all, Loom is definitely a jazz group, because if we decided to switch gears, we would play some bebop, or anything else from the jazz spectrum. This is key to the band because it helps with the trust in the band. That being said, we rarely play swing-based music.
Folk music means a lot of things to different people. It can be broad or specific. Somebody here in Chicago might immediately think of Bob Dylan. You know, American folk music–a singer with a guitar, maybe some other strings. The first thought in my mind might be Woody Guthrie. I also think that garage band rock is our generation’s folk music. Not just our generation, even an older and a younger generation. Folk music being music that is played for the sake of music, but not necessarily for the sake of art. It also might suggest the word ‘amateur.’ In other words, ‘for the love.’
If a garage band is playing…in their garage [laughs]
DM: Yep, that’s where they play!
MU: They’re just doing it for fun and making songs up based on the way they hear the music they listen to…and a lot of it sounds the same. That’s folk music to me. So, a kid picks up a guitar and learns how to play an E chord with this rhythm [sings rhythm]. Very typical…I’d call it suburban folk music. They’re just trying to recreate what they like. That’s all people are doing with any folk music. They’re just learning from the people before them, and learning how to recreate the music that they hear. That’s the general basis of it, and I like that. Jazz, now being an art music, originally came from folk music.
It’s the same with cuisine. There’s folk cuisine and folk music, and it kind of goes back to the limitations–this is what grows here, and this is why we eat it. These are what instruments we have, and this is why we use them. Then, over time, these things change. Folk music is harder to develop, now, with globalization.
When I moved to Chicago, I found myself among people from all over the world that were showing me and introducing me to different folk musics. For example, I played music with some South American people for years. I learned a lot about Colombian and Venezuelan folk music from my friend, Andres Castillo [guitar]. He lives back in Colombia, now. He knew a lot about the music already, but we would explore it together. We would explore the rhythms of not only the different countries, but also of particular regions of South America. For example, music from Peru is totally different if you’re in the mountains or on the coast. They’re different people. In Colombia, the music is really different depending on if you’re in the mountains or if you’re in the plains between Colombia and Venezuela. Then you go to Brazil and it’s huge and really deep.
I explored a lot of all this music with the band Son Trinidad. I learned to love a lot of that music and it started creeping into my writing. I wanted to use some of these folk rhythms as a limitation. All these regional rhythm also just naturally start to creep in.
Regarding Loom–basically, it’s an acoustic band with the exception of the electric piano and the electric guitar.
DM: It still has that feeling, though, of being a very acoustically-oriented band.
MU: Right. They’re all acoustic-based instruments. After Zach Brock moved to New York and couldn’t play in the band anymore, I asked Rob Clearfield to play accordion in order to replace the violin. This was mainly because the key and ranges of these two instruments are very similar, but also because I wanted another folky, acoustic instrument.
I’m fortunate enough to have many musical outlets, so I don’t feel like I have to do everything I want to do in Loom. The music is very specific for that band. I don’t really use any of those tunes for any other bands.
Loom is a jazz band, but, specifically, not a blues-based jazz band. However, it’s not something that just doesn’t happen in the music. The blues can come through our own individual playing, but the music itself is specifically not swing-based because I get my swing jollies elsewhere.
MU: It’s just what I decided somewhere along the lines. The instruments in the band inspire me to write stuff that’s potentially folky and rocky. It’s a personal thing because I know some things that the musicians can do and some energy that they can make happen. So, the combination of us all being jazz musicians, me being the one that writes everything, being really into folk musics, classical chamber music, orchestral music in films…this is just stuff that I like, so it comes into the writing. Everyone in the band is such a great improvisor and that’s why they’re in the band, even though they might not improvise all that much in the band due to the nature of the writing. It’s a vibe that everybody brings, like they’re willing to go places…and this is all developing. Because I see this development, I want to nurture that. I want to go in the direction that everyone is taking it.
Sometimes when I write a new piece, I realize that I don’t want to use it for Loom. I realize it wouldn’t fit the vibe. Even though it would probably sound good if we played it, I just decide to use it elsewhere.
DM: Is that how the album Themes and Scenes came about?
MU: Yeah. I was writing a lot of very orchestrated music. I started thinking that I didn’t want to play this with Loom because, first of all, there’s almost no improvisation. At that time, I had really been struggling to write some music that featured the improvisors in Loom. I have fun when we all improvise, so this was a time when I was kind of down on the band because I was writing too much through-compsed music. I realized I didn’t have an outlet for that, and I still don’t. That’s why I’m writing another record like Themes and Scenes. You know, I don’t have an orchestra at my disposal. Unfortunately, I never get to play any of this music out, but Loom does play one of the tracks.
MU: Yeah, because I wrote it for Loom and I decided I wanted to do a bigger orchestration of it which ended up on Themes and Scenes. That’s the only song Loom does live, because it really works in that band.
DM: Yeah, that’s a really beautiful song.
Another tune on that album that really hits me is “Light Sleeper.” It’s very hypnotic to me. The end is very beautiful. It almost feels like an ambient section, but with acoustic instruments, and the bass drum has these very well-placed hits that happen occasionally. It’s probably my favorite song on the record.
Ok, so the album is called Themes and Scenes. The cover is a picture of you sitting in a movie theatre. Your liner notes talk about how movie music has influenced you. However, I think if none of these very descriptive factors were involved, the listener would still feel that serious influence of film scoring. I feel like I’ve heard this music before, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. I feel like it’s a score to some movie I’ve seen before. I hear Bernard Hermann, Ennio Morricone, Van Dyke Parks, and even Jon Brion. Do you have a personal relationship with any of that music?
MU: I have a personal relationship just as much as anybody else who’s seen those movies. A lot of the music on Themes and Scenes had been already been written for a long time. I just didn’t know what to do with it. It wasn’t completely orchestrated yet. So, I finally decided on some instruments that I wanted. Actually, not just instruments, it was more about specific people.
DM: Nevertheless, the instrumentation is very specific. If it was orchestrated differently, it would probably affect me in a different way. The orchestration is full of very precise, very good choices. That’s really interesting that you wrote the music before picking the instruments.
MU: Picking the instruments, for me, has a lot to do with picking the people that I know. I’ve had some bad experiences working with some great, say, classical musicians because their rhythmic feel might not be up to my standards for the syncopation in a lot of my music. Finding the right players is key for me to interpret the way I’m hearing it. Because I feel I’m a well-rounded listener, I like to get other well-rounded listeners that are familiar with classical music, jazz music…other things.
DM: They have a broad spectrum of what they can do.
MU: Yeah. That being said, probably a lot of the orchestral music from films that I’m really affected by is played by union-paid orchestral musicians, but they’re badasses.
I had this music but I didn’t know what to call it. I just realized that it evoked something specific in my mind which I get from films. The music is really just inspired by film music. I mean, I don’t know what else it is other than just modern chamber music or small orchestral music, at times.
I just bought the “Shutter Island” soundtrack.
DM: Who did that?
MU: Nobody did it. If you see the movie, you’re probably think ‘man, that’s a great score, who did that?’ But then you realize that it’s just a soundtrack. They picked pretty much all modern classical music. So there’s some John Adams, John Cage…Ligeti did something, I think. There’s even some Mahler in there. Then there’s some people I don’t even know. The music was really well supervised. Even if you listen to all the music alone, it’s very impressionistic. Of course, I don’t mean the time period or place period. Scores to films are very impressionistic. They’re evocative. That’s why they’re there. They’re connected with the mood in some way. Either they’re causing or enhancing the mood. So, film music isn’t necessarily a genre. It’s always just come from modern classical music. Now people refer to music in movies as film score, and I do, too. They two just go hand in hand and now are influencing each other a lot, which I find really cool, and I want to be a part of that. Not to say there aren’t movies with non-orchestral music in them. There’s plenty of them, but when we say ‘score,’ we think of orchestral music written for the movie as opposed to a pop song that really nails the scene.
DM: And what about someone like Jon Brion who walks the line between orchestral and pop film scoring? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I hear some of his influence in Loom, as well as Themes and Scenes.
MU: Sure. I think I know what you’re talking about. The thing is though, I didn’t discover Jon Brion until I realized that I had seen all these movies he had written for. I didn’t really discover him until I saw his solo show, which blew my mind.
DM: Yeah. I was there too! I think I saw you there. Was that at–
DM: Martyrs’, yeah, right.
MU: I didn’t really know much about him, but then I realized that he produced that Brad Mehldau album, Largo. That album is influential. Some might say too influential on some specific musicians [laughs], but that’s fine with me. Since then, I’ve checked out a lot of the films again which Brion wrote for. Sure, he’s an influence, whether it was conscious or not. I didn’t necessarily think about it at the time, and I like that. It means that I don’t know where something came from. It had to have come from somewhere. Nobody is really writing original music.
Another film composer that I really likeis Ennio Morricone. I discovered him through John Zorn’s The Big Gundown. Scott Bradley is another. He wrote a lot of the music for Tom and Jerry. It has a lot of comedy in it, but it’s still really well-played and well-written, and I don’t understand how they conducted it. I also love Gustavo Santaolalla, who did some music for Pedro Almodovar’s movies, but also that Mexican director…
DM: Yeah yeah, he’s really popular right now. I can’t remember his name (we were trying to think of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu).
MU: But that’s the point–I should know all these guys. I should know about their lives and movies, but it doesn’t really matter. That’s the whole point. For music that is subservient to something else, such as film music, it’s just about the art. It’s not necessarily knowing about where it came from. If it affects you, it affects you. I, as are other people, am just sort of lazy in seeking these things out.
DM: Well it doesn’t feel that way. Your music feels very informed. It really feels like you’ve genuinely gone deep into music and understand certain things very well.
MU: I guess I just mean that sometimes I don’t really know where it’s coming from because I didn’t take the time to figure out who the composer was, but I like it, and I’m going to check out the music. It might just be on a blank tape and I don’t know what it is.
DM: Is the new music you’re orchestrating now in a similar vein to Themes and Scenes?
MU: I guess so. I have a couple projects I’m working on right now. I have all the music written. One is totally instrumental and will have improvisation involved. That idea started when my friends, Zach [Brock] and Erin got married last summer. They asked me if I would write a processional for the wedding. I was, of course, honored and challenged, and I said yes. These are musical and artistic people, so I had to really think about it. I said, “What do you mean, write a processional?” I mean, what is that? I know what it means. I know some very famous ones by, for example, Mendelssohn or Wagner, but I didn’t want to write something like that. It’s modern day. They were having a modern wedding. They just told me to do whatever I wanted, though.
The only limitation I gave myself was a pulse that they could walk down the aisle to. I asked Zach to give me a list of the musicians that were going to be attending the wedding. There were a lot of musicians that were going to come from all over. So, we had a string quartet, two trumpets, flute, clarinet, piano, drums…a bunch of stuff. So I wrote for all the instruments and ended up really liking it.
Then I started writing all this other stuff I didn’t know what to do with, so I decided to orchestrate it all with this same instrumentation. I ended up taking away a few instruments here and there and added vibraphone and bass for a lot of it. Some of the music has a piano trio featured with all the rest of those instruments.
DM: Piano trio functioning in a jazzy way?
MU: Functioning in a more chamber music kind of way, but featuring the trio. Not trio with orchestra, per se, more just a chamber group where the piano, bass, and drums are leading the dynamics. I’m not really sure what’s going to happen, but I’m trying to nurture this chamber jazz thing and see what happens. All the accompaniment is all written.
The other project is going to be songs that are sung. The lyrics may be featured 80 to 90 percent of the time, or maybe only 15 percent. Just a section with lyrics. Like a symphony where the brass will come in for 16 bars. It will be through-composed songs with instruments like strings and winds.
Eventually I’d love to have some sort of large ensemble to play this music, but at this point it all exists on paper and my head. I’m taking it slow logistically-speaking, but creatively, it feels not too slow.
DM: This all sounds great. I can’t wait to hear the finished product! Thanks, Matt.