The musical journey of the quartet Ulu – Scott Chasolen on keyboards, Josh Dion on drums, Brian Killeen on bass, and Aaron Gardner on tenor saxophone and flute – has crossed paths with such inventive jazz, groove, and jam band musicians as John Scofield, the Mickey Hart Band, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Moe., Soulive, the Jazz Mandolin Project, De La Soul, and the Greyboy All-Stars. Ulu released its eponymous debut, recorded in a home studio, in 1998; in 1999, it was the only all-instrumental act invited to perform at Woodstock ’99, and subsequently releasing two live recordings. This fourth album is all new studio material plus a set-ending instrumental cover version that comes near to the adventurous spirit, if not quite the sound, of David Bowie’s "Space Oddity."
Even if just from their similar instrumentation, Ulu strongly sounds like another modern groove/jam organ trio – Medeski Martin & Wood – riding with a bad-ass tenor player (Gardner) roughshod over funky jazz-rock fusion. This MM&W comparison is inevitable from the first bars of the opening “Where’s Paul” and only grows stronger as Nerve expands and deepens its instrumental reach in “All You Can Eat” and “Rollin’,” big fat hot buffets of computer-age yet old-school tenor/organ cool groove and jam. It’s a powerful undertow that pulls the listener’s ear swirling in a whirlpool of fusion and funk.
Though Never grooves, it does more than that. “The Tragic Flight of Sir Donkey Hawk” navigates jazz-rock of Zappa-esque stature, strains of rock and jazz intertwined in the keyboard and sax solos and in the rhythm section churning underneath, discharging in bizarre, unintelligible chanting and cacophony. “Bovine Confines” distorts the saxophone and keyboards to bleed their screaming into each other (a vegetarian instrumental tone poem?) yet also wanders down several other instrumental alleys, including a mainstream piano solo and brief Latin shimmy. “Spare Tissue” sounds oddly timed, like King Crimson, and suggests other reference points like Emerson Lake & Palmer that are more progressive rock than progressive jazz.
Personnel: Scott Chasolen (Rhodes, clavinet, organ, moog, piano, ARP strings, spoken word); Josh Dion (drums and percussion); Aaron Gardner (tenor saxophone and flute); Brian Killeen (electric and acoustic bass)