The deal with ulu

Drummer David Hoffman bristles a little at the term “jam band.” He hears it a lot these days because his jazz-groove band, ulu, is hot on the jam-band circuit, promoting its new CD, What’s the Deal (Catapult, 2002).

“I think [the term] gives kind of an undeserving credibility to bands that put themselves in that genre,” he says. “Some people say to me, ‘You guys aren’t a jam band, you aren’t rock-based.’ So I guess anything that’s rock ‘n’ roll-based improvisation is a jam band, and anything that’s jazz or funk-based improvisation isn’t a jam band.

“But it seems to me that the biggest jam bands ever would be the Miles Davis groups of the ’70s, or the later John Coltrane stuff, where they would just go into a studio and do whatever they wanted, absolutely improvised.”

And Hoffman apparently doesn’t have a problem comparing his own group to those heavyweights.

“If [they were jam bands], then sure we’re a jam band,” he says. “But there are also the groups that take one guitar solo every other song, like the only people that are going to hear you are people that like the Grateful Dead, and that’s certainly not the case with us.”

Based out of New York City, ulu also features keyboardist Scott Chasolen, sax and flute man Aaron Gardner, and bassist Justin Wallace. As a band, their musical influences run a motley gamut of artists.

“It’s pretty much whoever is driving the van at the time picks the music,” smiles Hoffman. “And it ranges from Radiohead to Ahmad Jamal, Beatles, hip-hop, the new John Scofield CD. That’s pretty much what we listen to. And we influence each other more than we are influenced by outsiders.”

The new CD echoes that spectrum, invoking, among other things, a healthy dose of ’70s-era Herbie Hancock funk, Bitches Brew Miles, and slammin’ jungle breakbeats from the 29-year-old drummer.

Ulu began playing in 1997, released its first album the following year, and has burnt up the highways playing 150-180 dates per annum since. The result of that amount of togetherness is a high comfort level between the players. “Justin [bassist Wallace] and I will go into a tune like ‘The Grape’ starting off differently each night. I’ve got to choose the drum beat, and once in a while Justin and I will say, ‘Let’s play it Jill Scott-style.’ We’ve been playing for so many years together — I do this, you move to this and this and I move to this, and that’s the way it works,” Hoffman explains. “My playing has changed and a lot has to do with the influence of the three guys in the band, for sure. When I listen to Justin every night, and he goes for something new, it forces me to go for something new as well. They’re all very rhythmic players.”

As ulu’s reputation grew through enerjazzed, funkified performances, they began to share bills with the likes of John Scofield, Mickey Hart, Greyboy All-Stars, and De La Soul, and the band performed at Woodstock ’99. In 2000, the group shrunk from a quintet to a quartet, with the amicable departure of guitarist Luca Bendetti.

According to the drummer, the sound and style of the band has since opened up.

“People have said, ‘Wow, you guys sound fuller,’ and that’s exactly what happened. It’s very rare when you can have a band that’s as improvisational and free as we are, and have a guitarist and keyboardist play at the same time, and really leave the correct amount of space open. Our keyboard player, Scott, has a pretty sick setup — an organ, clavinet, Fender Rhodes, Moog, ten fingers, and effects, distortion pedal and wah-wah pedal. And without the guitarist it freed us all up, and made us all better musicians. We’ve grown a lot.”

What’s the Deal, recorded live at Billy’s in Summerville, Massachusetts, is the group’s second live recording (they put out Live at The Wetlands Preserve on Phoenix Records in 1999). The new release is a raw, playful statement about where the band is right now.

“It’s definitely a little more stretched out,” Hoffman concurs. “It’s a live show that was recorded last April, and the arrangements are still similar to the way we do them now.” The resulting groovefest bears witness to this band’s style, but the process was not without stress, according to the drummer.

“I had to wear some bulky headphones, which I never do on stage, and they kept falling off,” he laughs. “There was a remote recording truck outside, and lots of record-company people on the project, and at the end of the show we didn’t even know how we had played. We were like, ‘Oh God, I hope that was good.’ We got a preview of what it was going to be in the truck afterward, and that was a relief. I was able to sleep that night, and so were the rest of the guys.”

Asked about his drumming influences, Hoffman offers a diverse list including avante-garde New Yorker Leon Parker, Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson of the Philly hip-hop group The Roots, and jazz-drumming legend Elvin Jones.

“I don’t know the drummer from the new Jill Scott live CD, but he’s so awesome and in the pocket, it’s amazing,” he adds. “And Bjork — her view of music and what a groove is is so different from what I hear other people doing, and it’s so cool. I used to be more into developing my freedom and kicks, and in the last few years I have definitely been into developing my pocket, trying to be more of a team player.”

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