I was excited to check out New York’s Ulu when they came to Summerfest on July 12. I knew that they’d played at RIBCO a few months back, and I’d heard a snippet of Live at the Wetlands, Ulu’s second album, recorded in November of ’99. My first inclination was to take Ulu as a band that relies on its association with new-generation pioneers of jazz improv, Medeski Martin & Wood. But I was a tad off. These guys have as much expertise, demeanor, and almost as much clout on stage as MMW. The exception lies in their execution.

The remarkable similarity between these two acts is not just the instrumentation or the genre, but also the likeness of both bands’ keyboard players, John Medeski and Scott Chasolen. (Scott plays the Rhodes, clavinet, organ, and Moog.) They both command respect almost as soon as they sit down, let alone when the first key is depressed. It is easy to see that they are both apt players, and at times the similarity in approach to arrangement is almost eerie, in that suggestion dominates the format. It’s as if “Yeah, we’re getting to the point … eventually” is obvious, but whether that point is actually reached lies in the hands of the conductor. Another hint that suggests these two are of the same blood (or do they call that influences?) is that they both have a knack for incorporating an electronica tinge in their playing, which is accomplished through the musicians’ ability to control several instruments. They’re playing so many things at once that they make drummers jealous.

That’s not to say that the percussionist for Ulu was inept. Jason Gardner was all over his utilitarian kit. In fact, he would have also made many drummers jealous with his simple yet refined and punctual creations that made the perfect backdrop for the goings-on up front. And speaking of rhythm, let’s not forget about bassist Dave Hertzberg. His touch was nothing less than concise, and it reeked of funk. Rounding out Ulu is the other primary melody maker, tenor saxophonist and flutist Aaron Gardner. His fluency with note progression during lead and solo work is amazing. And, as is a sturdy horn player’s duty, Gardner follows key changes like a valet parking crew in L.A.

Now the difference between Ulu and MMW, besides one extra man, is that while MMW seem to get lost in their conceptual ramblings, Ulu tightens it up a bit. There is a real sense of song in their work, which incorporates time and space very well. Ulu will sometimes take more time on each piece, but the utilization of space is unique. They use it as a commodity, cautious not to pack it too full at any one moment. And while Ulu’s songs tend to be fairly long (they average about eight-and-a-half minutes), the fact that they breathe so well rarely lets the work become tiresome. This lends itself to a resoluteness that can often be lacking in some players’ non-communicative meanderings. Medeski Martin & Wood have established themselves as the entity in revitalizing that prized stream-of-consciousness fluidity that marked beat-era jazz musicians as the quintessential pursuers of free will. But here, Ulu displayed its ability, like all good bands, to expand upon the initial exploration of its predecessors.

I’ve decided not to list many songs that Ulu played two Fridays ago, because when you listen to this music, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that they played a surprising and quite engaging version of The Beatles’ “Come Together” (without lyrics, of course). It doesn’t matter that Ulu demonstrated complete competence and patience with their rendition of Pink Floyd’s “Us & Them,” along with twelve captivating songs of their own. None of that matters. This music is about compatibility of the musicians, timing, and arrangement. The best stuff is, as usual, original. And, although Ulu might have to overcome being compared to its influences from time to time, that doesn’t mean it won’t continue to surprise and please unwitting crowds across the U.S. in years to come.

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