Matthew Charles Heulitt: Sonic Magician
Not one to throw all his eggs in one basket, Heulitt also plays in Bay Area sensation, Moetar, whose joyous pop/prog-rock, avant-garde, improvisational gumbo- extraordinaire sounds like Yes meets Frank Zappa meets Chumbawumba. Its exhilarating debut recording, From These Small Seeds (Self Produced, 2010), makes the bold claim that the marriage between great pop and outstanding musicianship can both entertain and challenge the listener at the same time.
Matthew Charles Heulitt is clearly a musician with an open mind and one who refuses to be restricted by the limits of simplistic categorization. Possessing a deep knowledge and respect for the music of the past, Heulitt's focus is, nevertheless, very much forward-looking.
All About Jazz: You'd been playing professionally for a decade before you recorded your debut as leader, Room to Run. In hindsight, do you wish you had recorded earlier in your career or are you glad you waited, to gain the experience and maturity?
Matthew Charles Heulitt: It's a little of both. I'm glad I waited until I had a clear vision of the kind of record I wanted to make, but in the studio I wished that I had had more experience recording my own material. I had enough studio experience to be comfortable in that environment and play well without getting distracted, but I realized I had a lot to learn about the production and flow of recording a large amount of music. Of course, in the end, I had many realizations of how I could have approached things differently and whatnot, but overall it worked because I had clarity about the kind of recording I wanted to make.
AAJ:The interaction between yourself, bassist Don Feizil and drummer Jon Arkin is appreciably tight. Have you guys played together for long?
MCH: We began playing together at the University of Miami in 1995, and the chemistry was evident from the beginning. Part of it, for me, is just that Jon and Dan are such sensitive players and are always 100 percent devoted to the music. I feel like I can do no wrong with them and that music is always being made regardless of how I'm feeling on any given day. We've played together in all kinds of situations and it's just strengthened the unspoken communications that bring about the possibility of magic happening. The three of us did an instrumental rock EP a few years ago called NOIS that couldn't have been more different from Room To Run, and yet it felt just as natural.
AAJ: Prior to studying in Miami you were at DePaul and Wayne State University. What did you study?
MCH: At DePaul I mostly studied how to write papers. The jazz program at that school turned out to be a bit of an afterthought. The best part was my teacher Bob Palmieri, who schooled me in the ways of tone, phrasing, and target notes. He was an amazing mentor. He also got me into the University of Miami.
At Wayne State University I studied with saxophonist Chris Collins, who was steeped in the Jerry Bergonzi technique of tetra-chord improvisation and ear training. I also had a steady three-night-a-week jazz gig in downtown Detroit, where I was schooled by players much better than I.
AAJ: You spent three years studying jazz guitar and studio music at the University of Miami. How important was this period of study in your development as a musician/composer?
MCH: I think any jazz program can offer a musician a great overview of what his life's work is. Miami did a fantastic job, and I scratched the surface as much as I could. My one-on-one lessons with guitarist Randall Dollohan were crucial to becoming the most educated and versatile guitarist possible. He is a teacher who teaches you how to learn. My workload with him was typically insurmountable, and as a result I learned a tremendous amount of material in a short time. In addition to that I was writing/arranging for big bands, playing piano, playing in ensemblesbig bands, vocal ensembles, ECM-type ensembles, Tower of Power-style fusion, avant-garde, et ceterasteeped in improvisation courses, writing in the style of Bach, and attending concerts and master classes weekly. It was total immersion, which is never a bad thing.
AAJ: Would you recommend the formal university education you had to aspiring young musicians, or is there a better path to self discovery/development, musically speaking?
MCH: I think it depends on the person. Some folks do very poorlyespecially artistically minded folkswith the structure of school. If that's the case, I'd say seek out the musicians that really inspire you and go study with them. On the other hand, there's certainly something to be said for being a literate musician, which is becoming a rarity these days. School at least provides you with some structure and an opportunity to study in depth. Its pitfalls are thatespecially in the jazz realmyou will be taught more about tradition, swing, bebop, et cetera, than you will about the art of improvisation and finding your own voice, which is the true essence of jazz, in my opinion.
AAJ: Were you doing many live gigs in this period? Some would say that the best schooling is on stagewould you go along with that?
MCH: There wasn't much of a gig scene to speak of in Miami at that time. I played in cover bands to make a little money. Most of the playing occurred on campus. We played all day and all night. There was an amazing collection of talented students there at that time that were all writing original music, listening, and jamming at all hours of the night. So to say onstage, I think, really means to play all the time. This was a singular experience for meto have the opportunity to be creative and play all day and all night for three years with very talented and creative people.
AAJ: You've certainly done plenty of gigging with highly talented musicians over the years, and you've played with Zigaboo Modeliste for over ten years. What's it like playing in his band?
MCH: Zigaboo is a guru of rhythm. My work with him has not been unlike that of apprenticing a sorcerer. The amount of groove, soul, and fire that man produces from behind the drum kit was, for a long time, very intimidating to me. It's only been in the past few years that I've felt like I've had the confidence to really offer something of value. I feel like what he does is not only singular, but somewhat of a dying art form. The funkthe real funkis so rarely heard. It needs a level of soul, selflessness, and sincerity that transcends technique and ego. This is what I feel like my challenge is in playing with Zig, and there are few things in life that are more inspiring. There is a ton of freedom in the band because it's all about the vibe, the feeling, and the need to be as bad-ass as possible in every moment.
AAJ: You also play in Narada Michael Walden's band. Have you learned something different about music and your approach to music making by being in bands led by drummers/percussionists?
MCH: I suppose that because it's my belief that rhythm and time are the most important aspects of music is maybe why I've been attracted to working with such great drummers in my career. It is essential in the task of creating great music. Narada has also taken me under his wing as somewhat of a spiritual advisor. He lectures me at each performance to play like I've never played before and to reach heights that I never thought imaginable. That message in general is of utmost importance, and to hear it directly from the mouth of a drummer I listened to as a teenager with wide eyes is beyond inspiring. His belief in my greatness is tangible and his performances behind the kit are transcendent.
Perhaps the greatest lesson I've learned from Narada is that there is no time and no excuse for mediocrity.
Jeff Beck and The Mahavishnu Orchestra. It's always amazing. The gigs I've had with Narada are always epic on so many levels.
AAJ: Coming back to Room to Run, your approach to composition and the moods you create express a sensitivity reminiscent of Bill Frisell, especially in "100 Years Ocean." How much of an influence is Frisell on you?
MCH: Frisell is an influence, but I think it's important to make a distinction about how that occurs for me. It's not that I've ever wanted to just replicate something I've heard by Frisell or any other musician, but rather that he's doing something that I relate to, and I feel inspired or encouraged to honor that voice within myself. David Torn is another guitarist that inspires me in a similar way. When I hear a musician going to that hauntingly beautiful textural place and doing it really well, I'm reminded of how powerful it is and, in some way, that I have a responsibility to share it. I'm drawn towards meditative music in generalI love electronic music and trance, and I think it serves a purpose on a CD. It cleanses the musical palate, as it were.
AAJ: "Never Present" echoes electronic-era Miles Davis. Is that a fair comment? If so, is this a period of Miles which you particularly like?
MCH: Yes, for sure. The rock elements along with the Wurli always stir those '60s-'70s Miles impressions. To be exact, this song was more of a nod to Chris Potter, but the instrumentation and edginess of it are certainly Miles- influenced. I adore all eras of Miles, but certainly my favorite is anything of the classic quintet from the mid-'60s through the '70s. The sound of the electric piano in jazz certainly began with Miles' experimentations in that era, and I've always loved it. There was a Wurli in the studio and Kit played beautifully on it. He really understands that era of music and interprets it in his own unique way.
AAJ: You switch to acoustic guitar on "Clearing." Do you have a preference for either acoustic or electric guitar, or is it like asking a parent which son or daughter is more special?
MCH: Well, yes, I love them both. If you compare how much time I spend playing each one, there's no denying that I'm an electric guitarist. The acoustic guitar has such a beautiful timbre for jazz and offers a nice tonal change in the midst of a guitar album. I always loved the Pat Metheny and Kevin Eubanks records with acoustic guitars on them. I also love the simplicity of having an all-acoustic ensemble.
AAJ: A really beautiful tune is "Fountain of Worth," where the tabla playing of Bryan Bowman really brings a nice dimension to the music. Did you imagine tabla from the beginning or did it suggest itself to you later in the compositional process?
MCH: I use various tools for composition, and this song was written using Reason. I put a tabla loop over the bass line and it brought a meditative quality to the tune. I knew that if I recorded it, it had to retain that feeling. Bryan Bowman and I had been playing together a lot during this time as a guitar/tabla duo. Ultimately, I would love to do a dedicated recording of that music, but at the least I wanted to have Bryan play on the record, and this song was the obvious choice.
AAJ: You've mentioned Frisell, Metheny, Eubanks and Torn as influences in one way or another, and another guitarist who you turned to for advice was Wayne Krantz. What did you learn from him?
MCH: Wayne has an amazing and beautifully thought-out method for opening the guitar up to actual improvisation. Most methods force you into patterns, shapes, and recyclable licks. When I first heard Wayne, I thought, "That's how I hear myself sounding...in another 20 years," in my own way, of course. But his voice is so unique, his touch of the guitar is intimate, and his timing is impeccable. He gave me some tools and ideas to think about that basically have become an unending source of material to work through and constantly generate fresh ideas ever since. I went to him because I felt stuck in my attempts to improvise and he offered a solution in less than 60 minutes.
His courage and tenacity to do his own thing and turn away from his influences has been a major inspiration for me to do the same. Plus, he's just an incredibly nice and thoughtful person and, amazingly, always remembers me when I show up at his gigs every couple of years.
AAJ: In your bio you mention quite a few horn players and pianists as major influences, among them Michael Brecker, Tim Berne, Charlie Peacock, and Esbjorn Svensson. How do you think your love of horn players and pianists has affected your guitar playing style?
MCH:I like the freedom and agility of pianists and horn players that is so rarely achieved on the guitar. They can simply play things that are oftentimes not executable on the guitar, and I think that's fresh and exciting. The guitar is limited by its layout, which is a blessing and a curse. I've always tried to approach the guitar with that same kind of freshness and agility that I hear in other instruments. There's also a kind of soul in wind instruments; the fact that the notes are created by your breath is so visceral and intimate. I've always tried to recreate that feeling with tone and touch.
AAJ: Have you been gigging much to promote Room to Run? How difficult is it to get gigs to perform your own music?
MCH: The live music scene today is not about what you play, but how many people can you bring into a venue to buy drinks. It's a little discouraging, but given the proper venue, good things can still happen. Because I'm so involved in so many different projects I don't play and/or promote this music as much as I'd like to. It's a work in progress, though, and as with all good things, it just takes a little time. Ideally I'd love to travel a bit because I think the audience in America is generally not tuned into creative jazz. Europe is much more receptive to such things, and I'll be looking for opportunities to bring it there.
AAJ: Do you get more satisfaction from composing or from performance?
MCH: They both ultimately end you up in the same placeself expression. We all have an innate need to express ourselves, to do what it is we came here to do. I feel like I was given an ability to give a voice to the spirit of music. We are so about ownership in this culture, and I inherently disagree with the idea that music that I play or compose is mine. It simply is, and when I have one of those fleeting moments where I feel like I've honored the spirit of music and been as honest as I can be about allowing that to flow through me, I feel completely content, radiant, grateful and inspired. It's always mysterious as to when and where those perfect moments happen, but the fact that they exist make all the lesser moments worthwhile.
AAJ: How do you feel when you are playing on stage on a good night?
MCH: I guess I just kind of answered that, but on a really great night I feel confident, playful, sexy, and uninhibited. I mean, I am a guitarist after all! [Laughs.]
AAJ: How would you define your relationship with music?
MCH: My commitment to music is built on artistry, discipline, sincerity and fun. I find that the musical path and spiritual path are one and the same, and each have taught me valuable lessons about the other. There are two kinds of music, good and bad: good being heartfelt, sincere and unique, bad being cookie- cutter, unoriginal, and/or poorly executed. I have a deep passion to play and continue my practice on a daily basis, and my biggest problem is finding the time to honor all of the different musical personalities and styles that interest me.
AAJ: A really fascinating band you play in is Moetar, which sounds like quite a special band with a very distinct musical personality. What's your take on the music? How did the band come about?
MCH: This band was conceived, for the most part, by Tarik Ragab. He and his wife Moorea Dickason asked me to be in the band almost two years ago, and we've played a handful of shows and ideally rehearse once a week. Some of the songs came together quickly, and others have required a ton of individual and group practice. It's definitely the most complicated music I've ever tried to pull off live, and the beautiful thing about it is that it ends up still being palatable to an audience. It is truly one of the most remarkable collections of musicians I've ever had the pleasure to work with. Not only is the music fun, challenging, hooky and edgy, but everybody is so open, inspired, and engaged. It's truly a rare occurrence. From These Small Seeds is our first release.
AAJ: The music of Moetar is, above all, daring and exciting. Do you feel we are living in an exciting age musically, creatively?
MCH: There are two ends of the spectrum, of course. On one end, music continues to be homogenized and sapped of anything redeeming, and on the other, thanks to technology and evolution, music is becoming more diverse and creative. I'm concerned about the lifespan of skillfully improvised music in America. Most of it seems to be in the form of jam bands, and anything more sophisticated goes over the heads of the average audience. It may just be a symptom of the changes caused by advancing technology. Perhaps one day soon, the true artists and magicians of sound will overwhelm us all with what's possible once again.
Moetar, From These Small Seeds (Self Produced, 2010)
Aaron Germain, Before You Go (Aaron Germain Muisc, 2010)
Pollux, For The Ghost (Self Produced, 2009)
Damien Masterson, All Over The Map (Good Omen, 2009)
J. Russell, For This I Rise (J. Russell Productions, 2009)
Sarah Eden Davis, Allies and Angels (Self Produced, 2009)
Matthew Charles Heulitt, Room to Run (Self Produced, 2009)
The Narada Band, Delightful (Narada Michael Walden, 2008)
Matthew Shoening, The Art Of Live Looping (Self Produced, 2008)
Eoin Harrington, Story (Self Produced, 2008)
Heather Lauren, Mosaic (Self Produced, 2007)
Radio Noise, These Constant Interruptions (Self Produced, 2007)
Various Artists, In the Name of Love: Africa Celebrates U2 (Wrass Records, 2007)
Page 1: Margaret Jow
Page 3: Lisa Tannenbaum
All Other Photos: Courtesy of Matthew Charles Heulitt