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20 Seattle Jazz Musicians You Should Know: Matt Jorgensen

Photo credit: Jim Levitt

Paul Rauch By

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Left to our own devices, musicians will figure it out. —Matt Jorgensen
The city of Seattle has a jazz history that dates back to the very beginnings of the form. It was home to the first integrated club scene in America on Jackson St in the 1920's and 1930's. It saw a young Ray Charles arrive as a teenager to escape the nightmare of Jim Crow in the south. It has produced such historical jazz icons as Quincy Jones and Ernestine Anderson. In many instances it has acted as a temporary repose for greats such as Jelly Roll Morton, Joe Venuti, the aforementioned Charles, Larry Coryell, Julian Priester and Randy Brecker, to mention but a few.

With this series of features, I will introduce you to twenty jazz musicians currently living and working in Seattle. It is not to be seen as any sort of ranking, it has no positional value in that regard. It is simply an effort to introduce the jazz world at large to the vibrance and innovative nature of the jazz scene in and around the jewel city of Seattle, Washington.

1. Matt Jorgensen

The jazz life in the twenty-first century requires a diverse and multi-skilled portfolio, requiring a resume previous generations of jazz musicians never fathomed having to deal with. Seattle's Matt Jorgensen has spent the entirety of his career figuring out what this skill set entailed, and has navigated those waters, well, skillfully.

Jorgensen is a jazz drummer by trade, and has throughout his career composed original tunes. His entrepreneurial skills have manifested in the creation of the highly regarded indie-jazz label, Origin Records, in partnership with fellow drummer John Bishop. The label has now released close to seven hundred albums. A second label, OA2 came soon after, and Origin Classical next. The label in turn spawned the Ballard Jazz Festival, a Seattle jazz scene annual rite of spring each May since 2002.

Early on in 1992, Jorgensen joined the multitude of jazz musicians who have taken a pilgrimage to New York City. He attended the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, and traversed the clubs and jam sessions around town, trying to make connections and get a foothold on the business. He had studied in Seattle with Bishop, and by 1997, was holding down the website and graphics for the then new Origin label from his apartment in New York. He recorded and released two albums with his band RadioAction while still in Gotham, recording both in Brooklyn, and of course, releasing them on Origin. Hi-Fi (Origin, 1998) bore the group name, with Jorgensen teaming up with pianist Whitney Asche, saxophonist Alex Graham and bassist Gary Wang. The second release was under the name of another Seattle ex-pat in New York, alto saxophonist Mark Taylor, with RadioAction as the supporting band. After Hours began to show sonic signs of a style Jorgensen was imagining that would manifest on later projects, a style that ironically would be more attributable to the culture of his native digs in Seattle. While Jorgensen has some regrets about not participating more in on campus events during his time at the New School, his activities about town and beyond schooled him in the oral tradition of the art, and gave him valuable experience in all aspects of the industry.

Jorgensen's style as a jazz drummer is deeply rooted in the jazz tradition, featuring intricate mechanisms on drums and cymbals within a uniquely modern mindset. This is not to assume he is a necessarily quiet player— Jorgensen has significant ties to rock music as well, and has mastered utilizing the skills from both his musical universes within the jazz aesthetic. He began to fuse the unique qualities of both forms conceptually, and put together a band to realize the results. The many incarnations of Matt Jorgensen +451 evolved from this artistic pondering, utilizing the Fender Rhodes, saxophones, bass and drums to create a sound jazz pundits began to refer to as a true hybrid, a true Seattle sound.

Jorgensen was bouncing back and forth from east coast to west, finally hitting the studio in Seattle in late 2000 to record the 451 band's first release, The Road Begins Here (Origin, 2001). Featuring Seattle piano great Marc Seales on Rhodes, and Portland tenor giant Rob Davis, Jorgensen dug in with veteran bassist Phil Sparks to interpret original tunes, as well as jazz and rock standards. The selections swing from Miles Davis' "Teo," to Led Zeppelin's "No Quarter," defining an original sound the band would carry forward despite changes in personnel.

"I wanted to do a record with the Fender Rhodes. Early on the idea was more like John Coltrane meets The Beatles. It was an amalgamation of the two worlds that I existed in. That was the original sound to it," recalls Jorgensen.

While jazz music tied itself to many tenets of the rock and roll revolution in terms of beat and instrumentation beginning with the fusion movement of the seventies, the 451 band flipped the script so to speak. Digging into rock classics with a post-bop mindset, the band created electricity not with overwhelming electronic force, but by way of the personal dynamics of the musicians themselves, and their respective approach to what they saw as the modern standards. When alto saxophonist Taylor joined to create a two saxophone front line for Quiet Silence (Origin, 2002), it gave Jorgensen just that much more to work with in terms of both composition and conception.

With Seales occupied more with his own career and a professorship at the University of Washington, Jorgensen turned to pianist/keyboardist Ryan Burns, who added a symphony of sound to the band on electric keyboards for their next release, Hope (Origin, 2004). A "mad scientist" of sound, Burns added a different dimension, leaving the original aesthetic of the band intact while evolving.

"It was considered kind of weird at the time. It was pre-The Bad Plus. I think with Hope (Origin, 2004), we kind of hit our stride. After the Quiet Silence record, Ryan joined to do the tours. The music on Hope was written for those guys (Taylor, Burns)," recalls Jorgensen.

By 2002, Jorgensen had spent ten years in NewYork, always in the back of his mind holding the intent of returning to Seattle. Origin Records was taking off, and the now thirty year old musician was a married man. His wife Rebecca, the daughter of renowned abstract impressionist artist Dale Chisman, applied to the University of Washington, and the decision was made to return home to the Emerald City.

"At that point Origin had started to take off, John (Bishop) and I would be on the phone every single day. I was doing the website from New York. 9/11 had happened and there were no gigs. We were planning on coming back anyway, it was one of those life pivots. We had gotten married, and I was living on my savings for five months. I had always known I wanted to move back to Seattle," recalls Jorgensen.

The couple moved into the same building as Bishop along the main drag in the historic Ballard neighborhood, and set up an office there for Origin. The neighborhood would as well become the site of an annual jazz festival produced by the label. The Ballard neighborhood at the time was a place where an artist could live relatively inexpensively, and was an extremely active community for live music performances of all varieties.

The Ballard Jazz Festival began in 2002 as a jazz walk up and down Ballard Avenue in numerous venues, and has evolved into a four day event that brings internationally renowned artists to town to interact with musicians on the Seattle scene. Over the eighteen year history of the event, prominent artists such as Brian Blade, Gary Bartz, Chano Dominguez, Chico Freeman and Ernie Watts have graced the festival mainstage, for the most part performing with Northwest musicians. For example, Jorgensen performed in 2014 with Bartz in a quartet that included Portland's George Colligan on piano, and veteran Seattle bassist Phil Sparks. In 2017, the Jorgensen, Colligan tandem joined legendary saxophonist Chico Freeman, adding Seattle bassist Evan Flory-Barnes. Seattle jazz audiences came to appreciate their resident artists in an elevated sense, seeing and hearing them perform with top tier talent.

Three nights of the festival take place along Ballard Avenue, creating a vibe that looks and sounds like the city of Seattle itself. It demonstrates in a real sense, the dedication to community exacted by Jorgensen, Bishop, and the Origin crew. The "boutique" style festival has a feel all its own, without parallel across the country.

Jorgensen's marriage connected him with the art world of his father-in-law, the prominent abstract modernist, Dale Chisman, who had moved from New York to Denver. Through his interactions with Chisman, Jorgensen was drawn to the possibilities of expressing the visual qualities of his work through music, as if he were painting with sound. The stunning result was an album of eleven original compositions entitled, Tatooed By Passion: Music Inspired By the Painting of Dale Chisman (Origin, 2010).

While it is often said that the goal of every jazz musician is to find their "original voice," the truth is we are all an amalgam of our experiences in life, no matter what path we travel. With Tatooed By Passion, Jorgensen certainly produced a completely original work that emerged from a very personal place. While his work as a drummer to this point was well established, the character and sound of his compositions were turning myth into reality—Jorgensen had developed an original approach and sound to his artistry that was immediately identifiable. The record centers on the quintet of Jorgensen, trumpeter Marriott, saxophonist Taylor, Utah based guitarist Corey Christiansen and bassist Dave Captein. A string quartet featuring the arrangements of Jeff McSpadden added texture and color to the work. The dynamics of the music encapsulated the static beauty of Chisman's work, from the heavy hitting guitar themed energy of "Primal Scrip," to Marriott's gorgeous balladry on "August."

Jorgensen gathered the original players for a performance during the 2010 Earshot Jazz Festival in Seattle, performing the entire album at the Triple Door, complete with large screen projections of Chisman's work. The performance was thrilling, with Jorgensen's compositions and Chisman's modern impressionism forming a dynamic alliance that exposed the beauty and vulnerability of both. Jorgensen's abilities as a composer were now fully out in the open, though he is always careful to note that he is a drummer that composes, not the other way around. Nonetheless, he had created what would seem to be a career defining work.

Over the past ten years, Jorgensen has well established himself as a top shelf sideman on the west coast, and has been instrumental in establishing Origin as one of the most prominent labels in jazz. Parenting became a main focus, currently the proud father of a daughter beginning high school, and a son entering the first grade. Like all jazz musicians, making a solid living as a musician is a tough business, with Jorgensen diversifying his skillset to include web design, and film scoring. To the latter, he decided to head back to school, and obtain a master's degree in professional music composition. After successfully completing the degree, he found himself immersed in that work, especially so after Covid-19 hit in March of 2020, making performing a near impossibility. He began teaching Music Technology at Bellevue College across Lake Washington from Seattle, adding to his already full slate. Jorgensen rolled through the punches better than most, and in many ways, exemplifies just what lies ahead for professional musicians surviving in the new, post-covid world. One has to change previous mindsets to merge into the modern paradigm.

Jorgensen's tech skills have assisted his transition into this new world, as a studio musician, educator, and performer. The subject matter of his class at Bellevue College has indeed gained increasing importance for young musicians entering the fray. It highlights what he has always believed, that musicians continually have to figure things out.

"The idea of a session musician is very different now, it means you have to be able to record at your house, and send the files back. If you're a violinist or a celliset, you've never had to deal with recording at home. Now you do to survive. A lot of us have figured out how to make it work. That doesn't mean you have to stop, you will always have to be figuring it out. That's the throughline. I think that's the throughline for all of this. Live music, we're going to have to figure it out. Making records, we're going to have to figure it out. And we do," says Jorgensen.

Jorgensen's music is heard throughout Seattle on a daily basis, in fact, more prominently than ever, despite the pandemic's hold on live performances around the city. From the opening chimes of "Seattle Now," a daily podcast on Seattle's NPR News station, KUOW, to the music embellishing the programming of PBS affiliate KCTS-9, Jorgensen's foray into film scoring has paid major dividends. His skills as a jazz musician, and prior experience in composing and arranging have accelerated his success in the field.

"I'm a drummer that composes. I'm really humbled by how far my music has gotten out there. Honestly, that's my focus now, I never would have thought. It's cool, and creative. It's just me, like I said, figuring stuff out," he points out.

The parallels between writing for jazz performance, and writing thematically, or for a film score, are many. Adaptability and the ability to improvise are skills that are applicable to all facets of Jorgensen's modern day palette of artistic reach.

"At the end of the day, it's just about throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what works. Most of my ideas are just screwing around for hours and then something hits. It's the same for writing for media projects. There's a reason that there are a lot of jazz musicians who are really good at film scoring and writing for media. It's improvisation at the heart, it's just figuring stuff out, putting the pieces together. It's like taking a solo. You know if you have to take one chorus, or two choruses. I know I have to frame the trajectory of my solo in a certain way, in order to make it work," says Jorgensen.

Jorgensen's balanced approach in acquiring his professional attributes from New York forward, have enhanced his ability to mentor young musicians. As jazz education has increasingly become more dependent on institutions of higher learning over the past four decades, there is concern that the financial model for students is ultimately unsustainable in terms of cost. With the major tenets of the oral tradition fading into the past, the concern for the generational passing of the torch this music has experienced throughout its history is genuine. To Jorgensen, that concern should be more for the overall sustainability of American college education in general.

"I think that's the wrong discussion to have. I think the wider discussion would be the affordability of college in general. I think the purpose of college is that first shot of independence. It's that era of figuring stuff out. The fact of the matter is, you can go to Bellevue College for a fraction of the cost of larger schools, and study with me, Jim Sisko and Dan Kramlich. I tell students you should go to the music school that gives you the biggest scholarship or is the cheapest," advises Jorgensen.

Jorgensen's approach as a student in New York still speaks to him as a professional some thirty years down the road. His balance between school and dues paid on the bandstand has never been a more valid course of action for a young musician. You have to learn, but as well, you have to act.

"Whatever you want to do after college, you should be doing now. If you want to tour, get some friends and set up a tour. Make your mistakes now," he says.

Indeed. If you want to survive, you have to adapt. As we enter unprecedented times globally in the era of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are reminded that the history of jazz includes two world wars, the great depression, the cold war, and a long history of injustice against Black Americans that has come to a sociological climax in current times. With the recording industry de-monetized, and live performances curtailed, jazz musicians are once again left to their own devices, without the financial support that has been afforded European classical musicians and performers. America's classical music was born outside of institutional convention, and shall remain at least partially exposed there. It is a time of change, and adapting one's skill set to clear the socio-economic hurdles placed in its way is a modern survival tool. The world has become a read and react reality, necessitating the musician to often change horses mid-stream. Jorgensen will continue to do what he has always done— figure things out for himself, and continue to create.

"We're in unprecedented times. It's something we review every week, where are we going? There's the reality of what is happening and the perception of what is happening. Left to our own devices, musicians will figure it out. If you want to know what to teach students in music schools, teach them to be entrepreneurs. Nobody can rely on anybody else at this point—it's all musicians."

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