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.

We did the first record, and then some gigs. Then I flew back to Seattle in 2001 and we recorded Quiet Silence. Both those records were done with two rehearsals and then into the studio. Then we toured a bit and I moved back to Seattle in 2002. We did some more touring when the album came out, but Marc Seales couldn’t make it so Ryan Burns did the tours and then just stuck around in the band. And Ryan, on top of using the Fender Rhodes, uses a lot of effects. He’s really changed the sound even further by using more electronics.

AAJ: You can hear even more of a shift with Hope. I was wondering if you’d been deliberately delving into more Ambient and Electronica sounds.

MJ: It’s two things. There’s that, and also a lot of music I’ve been writing and want to do has moved more into the surreal and free kind of realm. The thing about Ryan—a lot of people who play the Rhodes are piano players who play the Fender Rhodes. Ryan plays the Fender Rhodes. That’s his main thing. He knows it inside and out. It has this enveloping, warm sound. When we did Hope we’d been playing for a year, doing gigs. A lot of that music was written in the course of the tour. We’d been playing it for awhile and we moved away from what was on the page, started being more interactive. Trying to create art instead of just playing music.

AAJ: There seems to be a connection between some of what your doing and Electronica, some early Trip-hop like Portishead. You’ve covered Radiohead and Coldplay. Is it a conscious decision to incorporate those sounds?

MJ: I listen to a lot of rock music. All kinds of music. I’m always looking for those tunes, those Pop tunes—I realized recently on the last three records I’ve only covered British pop music. Someone pointed it out to me. I hadn’t even realized it. It leant itself so well. I should probably do “American Pie” now. Something totally red, white and blue.

There’s really two things. Obviously there’s music I’ve grown up listening to and liked. And all of us are now in our thirties. We started it in our twenties. We’re playing for people our age. For people our age, this is music we remember. There’s the root history of Jazz where you covered Pop music of the day, but more importantly they’re good songs. There’s that connection. If Jazz is gonna survive we have to connect with people who are buying records. Old people don’t buy records as much as young people do. There was a renaissance of Jazz in the ‘90s because young people in college got into it again. Did you ever go to Smalls? I was there when they first opened up. Its amazing that every night—they opened up at ten o’clock and for the first few years it was a real struggle, but once they found their niche every night at nine o’clock there’d be a line around the block of kids from NYU waiting to get in. To hear jazz music. That’s the stupidest thing you’d ever hear of!!!

AAJ: That’s what really struck me when I heard those particular songs. There’s this resonance to it. Obviously I’m not denigrating anyone else’s approach, but there’s this resonance when you start hearing songs that you grew up with. You here a sound that brings you into it. I think that’s something much of the Jazz industry has forgotten. That’s one of the reasons why the old time Jazz players used those Pop songs.

MJ: At the same time I don’t want to be seen as selling out with this music to try and get the kids. It’s not that at all. I’m trying to present a good time. I’m trying to present honest music. It’s part of who I am.

AAJ: That’s what I’m driving at. We didn’t grow up with “Embraceable You” as our Pop songs. We can enjoy it, but it’s not been internalized in the same way.

MJ: You’re right, that’s right. It’s interesting. We’ll go play gigs at college campuses and they’ll ask ‘Oh, what kind of band are you guys?’ ‘We’re a Jazz band.’ And they’re like, ‘I don’t like Jazz music.’ ‘Well, have you heard us yet?’ “Well, no.’ ‘Then stick around.’ Then afterwards, ‘Oh yeah, I really liked that. That doesn’t sounds like normal Jazz to me.’ And its like, its all just music. I don’t like Limp Biskit, but I don’t say I don’t like Rock music. Or Rock and Rap. Because I like Rage Against the Machine. Its about expounding your boundaries.

AAJ: I find that happens to me a lot. People tell me they don’t like Jazz until I take them to hear it live. Then they walk out and are like, ‘Wow. That was really good.’ Most of them have never heard any Jazz live, let alone the more modern stuff.

I want to go back to Hope again for a bit and talk about some of the tracks in more detail. Looking at some of the tunes, the three part piece “Hope,” “Peacefulness,” “Sanguine,” there seems to be a conceptual quality to the album. Could you go through how that came about?

MJ: Well, a lot of shits happened in the last couple years. It’s definitely changed who I am. I have this incredible opportunity of being able to put music out, of being able to talk to people like you and get stuff in print, and I wear my emotions on my sleeve most of the time too, so I think with everything that’s happened it effects everyone. It effects you, it effects your art, it effects music. I’m searching for something more. Not to compare myself at all—you listen to John Coltrane and you think about it, he was on a path that I don’t think anyone except him can really understand. I think coming out of the last two records, I’m trying to move beyond just playing gigs, just writing tunes. I’m trying to find something.

AAJ: There’s an overt spiritual, searching quality to Hope.

MJ: Yeah, totally. I think that started with the last record.

AAJ: I felt you were heading that direction with the rendition of “India” and then “Blessing” and “Quiet Silence.” There seems to be something you’re reaching for.

MJ: Playing this music live, every time it’s incredibly draining because I’m trying—I’m not really religious. I’m spiritual—so for me, this is my passion. Music. And reaching that place where you’re not just playing the music on the page, you’re creating and you’re entering the music. You become a part of it. That’s what I think about. That’s what I really want from the musical experience of playing with people. This connection that is beyond anything you can verbalize.

AAJ: There’s always talk about how disengaged young people are these days. Disengaged politically, from what’s happening around them. Are you trying to work against that? Is there a connection between art and that kind of engagement?

MJ: It’s an indirect connection. I want people to listen. Listen to the music and make your own decisions. First and foremost listen. Most people don’t listen. They hear. They don’t really listen to music. That goes with any kind of music. I come back to Coltrane again. You can hear what’s on the stereo, but if you really listen to it and place it in context, its like, ‘My god. What was he thinking?’ I can only imagine what he was thinking. He died at a fairly young age. Did he know he was going to pass away? I think he was trying to seek that higher spiritual plane with his music.

Now I’m not necessarily trying to do that—yet. But you talked about “Hope”. It appeared three times on the record. If you look at the music it’s a very simple descending chord progression. But I tell the guys in the band that there’s this idea behind the tune. The record is a song of hope. This song is a record of hope and its in three parts. You watch the news now and you can either get depressed or you can see this as an opportunity for things to get better. “Hope Part I” is a contemplative type of piece, but “Hope Part II” which appears last is joyous. When things are bad you can just say ‘fuck the world’. Just scream. ‘I’m gonna do my thing and I don’t give a fuck what everyone else thinks.’

You have what’s actually written on “Hope” and it’s very simple. To be honest in the music you have to let everything fall to its simplest part and build it back up. What you hear you could never—I feel like my name is on the tune, but it’s a collective ensemble piece. I can’t compose that. Everyone is brining in their own experience to that tune, the way they were feeling.

AAJ: I thought the way the parts were layed out throughout the album was interesting as well. After “God Put a Smile on You Face” and right then right before “Che,” then the third part is in the middle between “Peacefulness” and “Sanguine” and then it returns at the end. It runs through the album uniting the other pieces.

MJ: The first record was kind of thrown together, but starting with Quiet Silence and then this record, I really see it as a complete piece. It’s kind of like when you go to a gallery you’d have all the pieces and an artist looks at how all the photos lay out. And the user comes in and he’s going to go from one part of the gallery to the next and you have to make sure there’s a continuous flow. In a way you are manipulating the user into a way of viewing the art...I thought a lot about that when I did the record. It’s not just a record of ten tunes. This is one thing from beginning to end. It’s the same when we play it live. I make set lists and re-write them because this is a complete work.

AAJ: The complete opposite of ‘Let’s just call tunes.’

MJ: My way of looking at it—I have a tremendous amount of respect for the listener, so I’m probably a little too intense when I’m on stage, but talking to the band I always say ‘We’re giving this experience to the audience. This is work time.’ Maybe I’m too intense with that, but I think if you have that respect for the listener, you’ll get that respect back from the audience.

Visit Matt Jorgensen on the web at www.mattjorgensen.com .

Photo Credit

Matt Jorgensen with Eric Alexander by Steve Robinson

Matt Jorgensen Trio at Hattie's Hat by Tim Tyler

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