Matt Renzi: Between the Lines

Blaine Fallis By

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Matt RenziMatt Renzi is a multi-reedist, best known for his tenor sax playing and clarinet (his two main horns), but who has a knack for picking up other instruments as needed such as oboe, piccolo and flute. His New York City-based trio has been well-recognized for its group improv and composition and has recorded several CDs. Also performing internationally, it tends to push the limits of music that is simultaneously structured and wide open.

A San Francisco native, Renzi was born into a musical family. His father was principal flautist with the San Francisco Symphony and his grandfather was principal oboist with Toscanini's NBC Symphony. He received a bachelor's in performance from Berklee College of Music and a master's degree from San Francisco State University in classical composition. Some of his teachers included George Garzone, John Handy, Joe Henderson and South Indian vocalist R.A. Ramamani.

All About Jazz: How did studying classical composition for your MA at San Francisco State affect the way you currently compose and perform music?

Matt Renzi: In terms of composing, it got me away from using traditional chords to organizing more abstract sounds (usually manipulating anywhere from three to six notes) to write songs and try to improvise on them. For example, I might go from using half steps to whole steps ("Nothing Could Be" is an example of this) and that's the core sound of the tune. It also made me think more in terms of orchestration (timbre/sound/instrumental effects/etc.) rather than just blowing a solo on top of the band. It really opened my music up in every possible way.

AAJ: What modern composers did you study, and which would you cite as inspirations?

MR: I studied [Bela] Bartok, [Olivier] Messaen, [Gyorgy] Ligeti, [Elliot] Carter, [Milton] Babbit, and many others. I really like [Witold] Lutoslawski, Ligeti and Carter, just to name a few.

AAJ: What is the thread that ties together the members of your trio (with Dave Ambrosio and Russ Meissner) that allows your music to seemingly wander and explore, while always holding together and making sense?

MR: The fact that we listen to each other and are willing to let the music go wherever it needs to at any given moment. It really keeps you on your toes. We're constantly feeding each other ideas and feeding off those ideas. Also, you have the freedom to play anything you want at any time, and it will somehow work out.

AAJ: How do you communicate what you want to hear to your band mates, or is it more that you know and respect each player's musicianship and trust their interpretations?

MR: We don't really talk about soloing or where the music is going to go. I totally trust their musicianship and the way they interpret the music. If there's a specific thing the piece calls for [a certain harmony or form] we talk that over, try things out, but when it comes to playing it's up to us and our ears to guide us. I never tell those guys how and what to play.

AAJ: What might a chart of yours look like?

MR: Usually they're pretty short, about one to two pages long (and sometimes messy). I'm trying to put everything into Finale when I have time.

Matt Renszi

AAJ: According to bassist Dave Ambrosio, "Matt really pushes to have these songs expand the limits of the traditional jazz form by freeing the melodies up to expand and contract at any moment." How much of a melody for you is already written, and is that motif generally meant to inspire new improvisatory melodies?

MR: The melodies I write are anywhere from 10 to about 40 or so bars long. The melody is always used as material for improvising. In some songs, that's all we have to rely on (maybe no chords/ or an open form). Also, at any given point in a song, things can open up...and they could turn into a whole other "song within a song."

AAJ: How do you manage to play free lines and improvisations that end up sounding sonorous and beautiful, as opposed to tense, dissonant and painful as is sometimes the case in free jazz and modern classical?

MR: I try and play melody all the time, taking a simple idea and developing it. This also means that I have to remember what I played before in order to refer back to it (or not). Playing loud/fast/aggressive is great, but that's just one of many colors there are to choose from. There are so many other ways to go about playing free/open and creating tension/release points. I'm also interested in thinking of all the possible sounds/effects the saxophone can have and the different shades of tone you can get out of just one note. I think studying clarinet got me into this.

AAJ: How many different reed instruments do you own and play?

MR: I currently own tenor, clarinet, oboe, piccolo, flute, alto flute and play them all. I usually perform on tenor (and) clarinet (my main instruments), but in some bands I'm asked to play oboe on a song...or maybe something else.

AAJ: Is your playing style different on clarinet?

MR: Yes, I think it's very different.

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