As I talked to ulu’s David Hoffman (drums) and Scott Chasolen (Fender Rhodes, Clavinet, and Roland Organ) they were in the midst of planning ulu’s most ambitious gig yet. ulu is set to unleash their unique blend of funky jazz grooves with their own crazy “Carnival of Funk” in New York City on February 19th at S.O.B.s. “It will be an all out festive occasion with lots of happenings,” Chasolen said. “We want to find the common ground between art and music and energy and people. The carnival name is no lie. It will definitely be a carnival” In addition to featuring other bands such as Lettuce and 10 Man, the carnival will feature artists, video projections, dancers, jugglers and stilt walkers.
Medeski, Martin and Wood have paved the way for a whole batch of young funk/ jazz bands to emerge within the jam band scene. Many of these bands have developed a camaraderie with each other by playing together and opening for each other in different clubs around the country. ulu wants to bring these likeminded bands together, under the big top with their giant Carnival of Funk. Picture a mini HORDE tour focusing on the funky jazz bands of the jam band scene and you have the Carnival of Funk. If the first carnival is successful, ulu wants to bring the festival to other cities, beginning in Boston with Lettuce headlining.
ulu has come a long way in its short history. Hoffman and Chasolen met at Syracuse University and were introduced to bassist Justin Wallace through mutual friends. They began jamming as a trio but soon wanted to expand their sound so they placed an ad looking for a guitar player in the the Village Voice. Luca Benedetti responded to the ad and immediately passed the audition. When Luca joined the band he brought along his friend, sax and flute player Aaron Gardner. And so ulu was born. Within a quick month or two they were out playing gigs.
All the members of ulu contribute in writing their groovin’ instrumental excursions. Benedetti and Gardner studied at the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston and Chasolen is currently enrolled in a music program at NYC’s New School. Hoffman explained their songwriting process. “Many times Aaron, Luca or Scott will write charts out and bring them into rehearsal. Then we run through the charts and make any necessary changes. We all voice our opinions and sometimes the song that was once written on paper just takes completely new form. Also, Justin and myself often practice alone and write grooves during those practice sessions. We’ve brought in grooves and had the other three write melody lines over them.”
Chasolen went on to add: “We work in strange ways. I’ll come up with an idea, and Dave will do what he wants because I leave the drum parts out. I will write the bulk of a tune and the other guys will evaluate it and add to it,” He recently began composing full songs, writing out the music for every instrument in the band. “I use a synthesizer with built in 16 track as a compositional tool. This way I can lay out every part and hear everything at once. It’s easier to get the tune nailed down in rehearsal because when I bring it to the band I have it all worked out.” He played me a brand new song, composed on this synthesizer. Even over the telephone the tune had me groovin’ along and tapping my feet. It sounded like an entire band jamming, even though it was just Chasolen and his synthesizer. He brought the song to rehearsal the next day and the band is about to play the song for the first time at their next gig.
ulu’s first show was in April 1997 at a local bar in Butler, NJ. But within a year they were headlining such influential and legendary music clubs in Manhattan such as the Wetlands, Knitting Factory, and S.O.B’s. If you want to make it in the jam band or jazz scene, you must play these clubs. Otherwise, you will not get anywhere. And Wetlands has showcased ulu during two shows called “The New Groove Generation.” Other bands on the bill those nights included The Slip, Lettuce, Fat Mama, Schleigho, and Gran Torino. Wetlands is planning another show on March 20th featuring ulu and viperHouse co-headlining and Fat Mama in the lounge. The Knitting Factory, NYC’s eclectic and experimental jazz club, gave its seal of approval to the band by giving them weekly Friday night gigs in the tap bar for two months.
ulu’s unique instrumental sound is hard to classify. “Our music is a soup of everything that is going on in the five of our heads, it’s a big stew,” Chasolen said. “There is a funky edge for sure. It is somewhere between jazz and funk. Our music is constantly changing and constantly evolving. How we feel at that moment really effects what we sound like. Hoffman went on to explain: “Our music is curvier and linear. The curvier part is jazz and the linear part is funk and they come together to create the shape of ulu.”
ulu play slinky smooth jazz funk that sounds as unique as its name suggests. Imagine the funky fusion sounds of 70s Herbie Hancock or Miles Davis crossed with the smooth flowing technical chops of Steely Dan topped with a drop of the progressive art jazz of Soft Machine. Of course, ulu sound nothing like any of these groups. ulu sound like ulu and they are a cosmic combination of all of their influences.
While in the middle of a cross country tour with Phish, Chasolen realized he wanted to become a professional musician. A few hours before a 1994 Phish show at Evergreen State College he and some hippies started wandering around campus. It had been a long time since he played any music, so he was dying to play the piano. He and some tour heads found their way into the music building on campus. They weren’t allowed to be there, but the building was empty so Chasolen walked up to the piano and helped himself to the ivories. “I started playing this grand piano, and it was the biggest release I ever had,” he said. “A bunch of hippies were hanging out listening and that night made me realize everything. Phish inspired me to go out and get what I wanted. They were my first glimpse of what was possible with music and by playing their music it showed me what my own capabilities were. After that night, my social life ended. I spent the next two years sitting at the piano.”
ulu’s terrific debut album was created under challenging circumstances. The album was recorded in the offices/apartment/recording studio of Neva Recordings on E.25th St. in NYC. Every band member was on a different floor and in a different room of the apartment. Only Wallace and Hoffman were in the same room together. Obviously, this meant that none of the band members could actually see each other. Their only communication was through mics and headphone mixes.
“By being separated we had to relearn how to play with each other in a matter of hours,” Chasolen explained. “Usually our music is visual with eye contact. But then we go to record and we can’t see each other, talk about adaptation! It heightened our sense of our own music because all we had was our ears. Our gear took up every inch of the apartment/studio. The amp to my Rhodes was even in the shower. I could hear the Rhodes and bathe at the same time. You might even hear the sounds of pissing in the background.” He was kidding about bodily functions, but he did put the Rhodes amp in the bathroom because he liked the way it sounded with the bathroom’s natural reverb.
Hoffman mentioned the album was one of the most stressful things they have ever done because of time constraints. The band rented lots of gear and only had two days to record the album. “The first day we recorded tons of tracks, but only had one keeper. We wanted 12 tunes for the album,” he said. “The second day we had difficulty with the ADAT machine. How were we going to find an ADAT machine immediately at noon on a Sunday? But luckily we found one and recorded 11 straight tracks and they were all good. There were only one or two overdubs.”
“The album is a nice little appetizer of what we are about. For the full course meal, check us out live,” Chasolen commented. At an ulu concert you may hear some odd but interesting choices of covers such as the “Cantina Theme” from Star Wars or the “Super Mario Brothers Theme” from the video game. In order to learn the music for Super Mario Brothers, Chasolen bought a used Nintendo machine for $15 and then rented the Super Mario Brothers game. “I played the game just to transcribe the music. When I got to level II the music burst into this weird funk thing. When I play that part of the tune the crowd goes nuts. They start yelling “OH YEAH, SUPER MARIO BROTHERS!!!” The Nintendo is sitting in his garage, collecting dust as the only reason he ever bought the thing was to learn how to play the music. These two teases are planned and the entire band jams on them them frequently. However, they have also teased the “Axel F Theme” from Beverly Hills Cop as well as “Caravan” or “Slipknot” on occasion. Usually Chasolen will start a tease up, hoping the rest of the band recognizes it. If they recognize it then they will respond and the band will playfully jam on it. Some more conventional cover songs ulu plays are Herbie Hancock’s “Hang up Your Hangups” and Billy Cobham’s “Red Baron.”
While ulu is currently an instrumental band, the thought about using a singer has crossed their minds. “Sometimes I think it is cool, if someone can work with us and use their voice as an instrument and not just as a singer” Chasolen said. Hoffman went on to explain: “If there is a great singer, we would love to jam with one. However, the chemistry of the quintet is very good and if we add another person things could change. We would never become a vocal band, but we do want to do some tunes with a singer. Our own voices are not as good as the music we play. Lyrics are not a part of our music. We think that stories unfold with the interactions of the musicians and you don’t have to say anything but just move your body.”