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Matt Jorgensen: Seattle's New Sound

Franz A. Matzner By

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Originally from Seattle, drummer, composer, and bandleader Matt Jorgensen began pursuing music relatively late. After only a few years of study during college, he picked up and left home to throw himself into the New York jazz scene. Now, ten years later, he’s formed a critically acclaimed ensemble, released his fourth album, and is co-owner of his own label, Origin Records.

A young player expanding the sound of jazz with his distinctive compositions and sound, Mr. Jorgensen has a lot to say—both with his music, and otherwise.



All About Jazz: Before we get into the record label and your new album, I want to talk a little about how you got started in all this. If I understand correctly, you hadn’t really studied much music before college, is that correct?

Matt Jorgensen: I started studying jazz the summer between high school and college. My dad signed me up for a big band class at Shoreline Community College. The big band director there was Jeff Sizer, who probably changed my life. Basically, I learned how to play big band drums in like a couple of weeks. Just scrambling to get ready for the class. I took the class and really dug it. Then I ended up going to that school for two years. It was kind of being thrown right into the fire. I went to Shoreline College for two years. Then, a friend of mine there ended up going to the New School, so I followed him to New York. I moved to New York when I was nineteen and just hung around for ten years.

AAJ: Had you played other instruments before that?

MJ: I played piano when I was a kid, but I never really stuck to it. That was pretty much it. I’d always wanted to play drums, so I started like my freshmen year in college. My very first teacher was John Bishop, who I’ve known now for half my life. He’s the other co-owner of Origin records. He started Origin Records in ’97. I was very fortunate at an early age to have all these people. To meet John, to be involved at Shoreline Community College. I think if it had gone any other way, I probably wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today.

AAJ: When did you make the turn to do this professionally?

MJ: It’s kinda funny. Somebody asked me that the other day, and thinking about it, I don’t really remember. It was just this thing. I was going to school in Seattle, and I just stopped doing other stuff besides music. I started taking music classes. Then I moved to New York and it was just something I did.

AAJ: So there was no late night, early in the morning moment of truth?

MJ: No. Not really. Years later there probably was. ‘Cause it was totally different from what I envisioned growing up. Basically, I moved to New York and I didn’t have anything to do. I didn’t have a job. I had a little bit of money. If you asked me know at age thirty-one to move to New York with no job, no money, and no place to live I probably would not do it. There [was] a lot of ignorant youth-bliss involved.

AAJ: Seems to produce a lot of things, that youthful naiveté.

MJ: Yeah. It was a great time. I moved in ’92. It was an amazing time. I think it was the beginning of the jazz renaissance. There were a lot of places to play in the East Village. I remember seeing Bill Stewart, Larry Goldings down at the Village Gate. Brad Mehldau was at the New School when I got there. He was just graduating. He would play around. I remember when it was a big deal when he first got hired by Josh Redman. Actually, I saw Josh Redman the second day I got to New York.

AAJ: There seemed to be a lot of energy going on all over the country at that time musically.

MJ: At that time, yeah.

AAJ: How did the Seattle musical environment effect you as you were growing up?

MJ: It was a really good place to grow up. The whole Seattle music scene hadn’t really broken when I left. It was right when I was leaving. But I think part of the reason the Rock thing took of is that Seattle is pretty isolated. We’re not really touched by a lot of—we’re far enough from L.A. and everyone else that we kind of do things on our own up here. You have a lot of people checking out a lot of different music, and doing a lot of differenent music. When I grew up people would—you would go and see the Ray Brown Trio and then the next night you’d go and see Charles Gale at the O.K. Hotel, this club. You’d check out widely different things. We’re a big enough city that nationally known people were coming around town, and also growing up a lot of my friends we’d just play all kinds of music. It’s a very eclectic bunch of guys, quite a scene. I think that lends itself even to the professional community. You’d have a lot of New York guys that would settle here—that fled New York.

There’s definitely an eclectic scene. There was a club—the O.K. Hotel—that was really important to me growing up in terms of seeing a lot of different bands. We had an earthquake. I think in 2000 there was a big earthquake and the building that the club was in ended up being condemned. The scene in Seattle now hasn’t really recovered yet from that club being lost, and a few other clubs that were lost. Seattle’s gone through some transitions now, with a lot of money. A lot of the old time club owners have left, and some of the new ones still haven’t figured it out. But I think its starting to come back. I moved back in 2002 and me and some friends are trying to present a lot of music, trying to capture what we remember as a cool scene.

AAJ: I think I have to ask—since it’s the ten year anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death, it’s been in all the newspapers—it seems like that era and grunge music had a lasting effect on our whole generation.



MJ: You look at every city and every huge movement in music and the city it came out of, those cities never really lose that. Like San Francisco will always be Psychedelic Rock. New York will always be CBGB’s Punk, the Ramones. Jersey will always be the Springstein thing. And Seattle will always be tied to the Grunge movement. And in a way, when that Nirvana album came out—the previous number one album was Michael Jackson’s Bad. Then Nirvana became the number one record that forever changed music. That’s something pretty cool.

I think for musicians that were in Seattle, they were making honest music. It’s funny. Whenever there’s a huge movement in music like that, there are a lot of people who try and copy it. I think the same thing happens in Jazz. Like with Norah Jones—and I like that. I think Norah Jones is great. I think that record is great. People are trying to analyze why she’s such a big hit. I think the reason is that she does what she does and it was the right moment in time for that record to come out. Now you start seeing a lot of people dissecting what she does and trying to figure it out and replicate it, which is completely the wrong thing to do. That’s a recipe for failure. To really have an impact you have to make honest music. I think that’s what happened in Seattle in the early ‘90s. That happens time after time after time. That’s what real artists should strive for. For me growing up in Seattle it had a huge impact on what I want to do as an artist. Witnessing that, and seeing that happen.

AAJ: That’s what I think is interesting. Something like that doesn’t have to have a musical influence, there’s just a lasting effect having watched it happen.

MJ: It’s kind of like what I try and tell guys here. In Seattle now there’s a really good jazz scene happening here—and in Portland—that a lot of people don’t realize in other parts of the country. All those things are setting themselves up again to happen. With my group, I’ve done three or four records now with the same core group. We have this sound and we have this thing we’re trying to do. It’s something that I believe in. When I write music it’s for these guys. No one knows who I am. The band is starting to get some exposure. The idea that the collective sum of all four or five of us in this band is more powerfull than any one individual. When that happens, that’s when truly great music happens.

AAJ: Let’s talk about the albums. You’ve really built a very recognizable sound. You’re pulling from a lot of places that are somewhat unusual for Jazz right now. I really like both these albums—I have Quiet Silence and Hope right in front of me. I’ve been listening to them since I got’em. The first thing that struck me was the use of the Fender Rhodes. I’ve been hearing it a lot more recently, but you’ve really been using it a lot.

MJ: It’s kind of funny. It happened really by accident. The very first record we did was called The Road Begins Here. If you go back to the mid nineties when I started leading my own bands it was originally two saxophones, bass, and drums. We were gonna do the record that way and then scheduling conflicts happened so at the last minute I said, ‘lets bring in Marc Seales’—a pianist from Seattle whose fairly well known. The only way he would do it was if he could use the Fender Rhodes. It was the only way he wanted to do the date is if he could play the Fender Rhodes. So I kinda came up with arrangements. We did “No Quarter” by Led Zepplin on that record. It’s kind of funny. It’s one of those things that happened totally by accident, but it worked. And it just stuck around. Now five years later I’m a considered a genius for it. I can’t really take credit for it.

AAJ: It really connects the sound with a very trip-hop feel that you seem to be working with.

MJ: It definitely goes beyond the classic jazz quartet sound. It opens up many more avenues of potential ways we can go. It has power too. You can just do so much more with it than a piano.
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