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Matt Penman: Down on James Farm

R.J. DeLuke By

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Penman recalls fondly his formative years as a musician. "We had a lot of activity. It's where I started having to write and that whole thing. It was great to grow up there, because I also had a very wide musical experience. Not just jazz. I played every gig that I could play. There are good musicians of every style there. Some really great groove musicians, funk musicians and rock guys. So I played all that as well. That's a whole education in itself."


James Farm, from left: Aaron Parks, Joshua Redman, Matt Penman, Eric Harland

Musicians rarely had tour stops in his country, so much of listening part of the process came from recordings. Records weren't exactly a dime a dozen, so they were cherished. "When you got one, you really got into it. I don't want it to sound like it's the Third World or something. Records were just more special. You got one and you really wore it out. It was the good stuff that came through. The real classic stuff. My early education was all about playing with records. Then playing with the older guys in Auckland. That was also very formative."

As a bassist, Ray Brown and Ron Carter, in particular, grabbed his attention and accelerated his journey. "Later on, Gary Peacock and Dave Holland, Marc Johnson and Charlie Haden. Basically everyone. I like all the bass players. Eddie Gomez. It was only later that I started to check out Paul Chambers. I was missing what he was doing in the beginning. Someone told me, 'You've got to go back and check out P.C.' And, of course, they were totally right."

Electric players were also important to Penman, who was gigging in all genres of music. He points out, "I didn't create much of a distinction between what was going on, on acoustic and what was going on, on electric. To me it was one big, mashed, low-end rumble. So checking out Jaco Pastorius and Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller, later on MeShell NdegeOcello. It was all part of my education. Because I was playing electric bass and acoustic at the time. Mixing the styles. I think what attracts me to groove music these days is that I played so much electric when I started. I played in so many bands, where I was just laying down the baddest groove that you could for about half an hour."

In the '80s and 90s, there were no schools in Auckland where any contemporary music was studied. Penman learned on the job, gig after gig. He recalls with a chuckle that it was a cassette tape he sent to Berklee that got him into the renowned school. "I guess maybe after hearing a couple notes, they said 'OK. Bassist,'" he quips. "It wasn't until I got to Berklee that I had any idea of what formal jazz training was. It's certainly good like that. It gives you an opportunity to interact with the music and your own sound, from the beginning. At least that's how I did it. I had no choice."

Penman didn't stay there long, moving on after about a year. But the Berklee experience got him to the States, and got him moving in circles where other hungry, creative souls were moving about.

"Getting to the States, there's the realization that there are more than two drummers in the world that swing," the bassist said with chuckles that dot his conversation. "It is a nice little microcosm before you move to New York. It was very fun meeting people and playing and recording at all hours of the day. Doing nothing but talking about music. It was nice to get to the east coast. Definitely a good experience. But I'm also glad I didn't stay there too long and got out and moved to New York."

New York City can have different effects on different people. Intimidation, even confusion, can play their roles. But the 20-year-old New Zealander didn't really see either one. He was already set in the notion that he was there to stay, and that things were not going to happen overnight.

"So, I kind of set up shop and got to the business of trying to learn the music. I was still musically pretty green when I arrived in New York. I had a lot of work to do, and a lot of things to check out. So for the first three years that's what I was doing. Getting deeper into the music, getting deeper into writing. At the same time meeting people and finding out which musicians I resonated with. Also going out and getting blown way every night. There's nothing like that."

He recalls in that early period talking with George Garzone on a record date. "He was like, 'I know you're struggling, but as long as it's fun.' The point being, it's an uphill battle and that kind of thing, but if you're not enjoying it, maybe you should not be doing it. You have to enjoy your job. You have to make the quest enjoyable. If on paper the journey looks difficult, in reality you should be making it as fun as possible. Even if you're dirt poor. It's a good attitude to take through life, I think—and music."

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