On Friday, March 24, Chris Klaxton’s OURBIGBAND will add to their Artist in Residence series when they drag bassist/composer Matt Ulery over to the East Coast from his home in Chicago to collaborate with the group at The Dance Hall in Kittery. And that’s just the beginning. Ulery will hang around with Klaxton for the weekend and contribute some four-string thunder to a quintet configurement up at Blue in Portland, Maine on March 25 and finally at the Press Room in Portsmouth on Sunday, March 26 with the Chris Klaxton Quartet.
The OURBIGBAND installment follows on the heels of October’s blissful venture with trumpeter Dave Douglas. For those unfamiliar, OURBIGBAND is a conglomeration of the Seacoast’s finest performers looking to keep the Big Band sound alive in contemporary times.
EDGE caught up with Ulery to discuss his impending visit and ensuing collaborative efforts.
EDGE: You’re heading to New Hampshire for a few gigs (that have you bouncing around between N.H. and Maine), which include The Dance Hall where you’ll join forces with Chris Klaxton’s “OURBIGBAND,” and then on Sunday at the Press Room with his quartet. How do you know Klaxton? What excites you about participating in these different projects here in the Granite State?
ULERY: Yes! I am extremely enthused about this visit and residency with Chris. We got to play together this past summer when he came to Chicago (where I live) to play with the incredible trombonist/composer, Kendall Moore, who is originally from Chicago and knows Chris from Miami. I felt Chris and I had an immediate hook-up and when he invited me out East to play my music, I jumped at the chance. My latest album, “Festival” (October 2016) features a side of Big Band music (plus strings), which was, at that point, pretty much all the music I’ve written for that instrumentation. I’ve been meaning to create a whole book of original music for Big Band. This project with Chris was the incentive, so pretty much everything we are playing next weekend is brand new in some way! I’m also super excited to play some of my underplayed quintet music. Knowing Chris, I’m sure he’s put together a cast of thoughtful, sensitive players. I’m deeply honored that all these folks are putting in the time and energy.
EDGE: What’s the importance of variety in a musician’s diet? You’ve worked with myriad artists throughout your career. Is variety necessary for success, longevity, both (or neither)?
ULERY: Fortunately, I get to play bass and everybody needs it. The function doesn’t really change all that much across musical genres aside from style. So, I’ve had the opportunity to learn how to be a diverse musician through all kinds of gigs with all kinds of folks over the last 20 years. Yes, I’d say being a versatile musician, not only as a leader, but also as a sideman or collaborator, is essential for long-term success or happiness. I believe that if you practice truly enjoying all the different music you are playing with other humans, you’ll never feel like you’re doing something you’re not supposed to be doing. For example, there are some heavy musicians that feel they’re somehow artistically above playing a wedding gig (and it manifests negatively in their playing). I say, what’s wrong with playing R&B and making people dance? I mean, when the musicianship is high and people are cool, then it’s always going to be fun.
EDGE: Curious about your collaboration with Jimmy Chamberlain. I had no idea he was a highly touted jazz drummer until I saw him among the sea of names of folks you’ve worked with. What was it like working with him?
ULERY: Jimmy is great. I didn’t know he was a highly touted jazz drummer either, and, we didn’t actually play any jazz together (laughs). Our collaboration was a trio with guitarist-singer Scott Lucas, of Local H. He knows Jimmy through some rock star stuff and I know Scott through friends and family. We all live in Chicagoland. Scott was asked to do a new project for CIMM Fest a few years ago scoring a silent film and performing it live. He asked Jimmy and I to collaborate and the three of us composed this new score to Sergei Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” from 1925 (I think). This was a real garage band experience in the best ways possible, especially working with those guys who I rocked out pretty hard to as a pre-teen. The music was heavy and beautiful. I think there’s some clips on YouTube somewhere from that one-off performance. We have tentative plans to do more.
EDGE: Do you think of music in terms of genre? Is the compartmentalization of music necessary?
ULERY: Sure I do, but I don’t discriminate. Genre, among other things I’m sure, means specific style, vocabulary and vibe. If we can appreciate the refinement of these different qualities, we’re that much more enriched. It’s only by imitating that we eventually discover our own voice, just like talking. And if we are able to compartmentalize, we have different kinds of conversations (musically or other) with different kinds of people. However, there is obviously genre bending music out there. Isn’t it true that so much music that has a name attached to it wasn’t named that for some time? For example, “classical,” “jazz,” “minimalism,” “punk,“etc. I can’t begin to try and break down all the “metal” sub-genres.
EDGE: In today’s world, jazz sometimes comes with the connotation that it’s a bit of a “high-brow” brand of music. Which is interesting considering that the genre – especially Big Band – was once the premier form of entertainment. It literally was the pop music of a generation. I’d like to get your commentary on that, and sort of how you play with your own music a bit perhaps as a means of attempting to bridge genre-esque gaps.
ULERY: Big Band music was popular because it was dance music. Originally totally acoustic, I suppose you had to have enough musicians/instruments to create a sound powerful enough to create a strong party vibe. And since we already had the military band infrastructure in our society, it made sense to use the existing instrumentations, more or less, to create what were known as “stage bands” or “dance bands.” As branches of Big Band and jazz music have evolved as art music, we still use these existing infrastructures. In other words, because of formal jazz education systems (partially capitalist in nature), there happen to be a seemingly endless supply of big bands or jazz orchestras through academic institutions, for better or worse, which has helped composers and arrangers develop a substantial repertoire for these bands. I certainly came up in these traditions, among other places, and I’m thrilled be a part of the evolution process.
EDGE: Okay, I suppose it’s appropriate to trace some more of your roots for a minute. Was there a moment or experience in particular that led you to pick up the bass, and, further, chase it down as a means of making a living?
ULERY: I wanted to play Nirvana and punk, so I did. Listening to bands like Operation Ivy, for example, I was way into the walking bass lines in the music, so I imitated that. Soon, I began to discover the roots of this through rock and roll, rockabilly, jazz and blues and as I became more proficient in reading music (through middle school/high school bands and tuba), I was able to play more professional gigs with the older cats in town (Rockford, Illinois). These guys were telling me if I was going to play jazz that I should play upright. One thing leads to another ... Making a living at it just happened and somehow miraculously keeps happening. I’m always chasing it down still, but it’s also important to balance life with other lovely things. It is just music and one shouldn’t attach all of their self worth to it.
EDGE: Music. Why do you seek it? Why do you create it?
ULERY: I’ve come to find it’s the thing I learn the most universal truths from. If you find something you’re good at, you should probably stick with it for a while and see what happens. I want to compose music because I like good music and I want to try my hand and adding to it, just like any other artist does. There’s a satisfaction in the process. Playing music live in real time is one of the best ways I’ve found to be present.
- CHRIS HISLOP, EDGE MAGAZINE / PORTSMOUTH HERALD