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Take Five With Dmitri Matheny


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Meet Dmitri Matheny: Celebrated for his warm tone, soaring lyricism and masterful technique, Dmitri Matheny has been lauded as "the first breakthrough flugelhornist since Chuck Mangione" (San Jose Mercury News). An honors graduate of Interlochen Arts Academy and Berklee College of Music, Matheny was first introduced to jazz audiences in the 1990s as the protégé of Art Farmer, and has since matured into "one of the jazz world's most talented horn players" (SF Chronicle). Matheny tours internationally, performing material from his nine critically acclaimed CDs, balancing fresh, original works with familiar jazz classics, hard bop, west coast cool and beloved standards from the Great American Songbook.



Teachers and/or influences?

Teachers: Art Farmer, Carmine Caruso.

Major influences: Art Farmer, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Clark Terry, Tom Harrell.

I knew I wanted to be a musician when...

I credit my father and his hip record collection for kindling my childhood interest in music. There was great music on our turntable all the time, from Rachmaninoff to Ray Charles.

According to Dad, one time when I was about five, he was spinning Kind of Blue. I asked, "Daddy what's that sound?" When he answered, "That's Miles Davis, a great jazz musician." I responded, "That's what I want to be when I grow up." The story may be apocryphal, but Miles is still my man.

Your sound and approach to music:

As a flugelhornist, I play jazz—lyrical, modern, mainstream jazz in the tradition of Miles Davis, Chet Baker and Stan Getz.

My discography as a sideman is mostly a balance of instrumental and vocal jazz, including original straight ahead material, familiar jazz classics, hard bop, west coast cool and standards from the Great American Songbook.

As a composer and bandleader, I like to bring in elements from other genres, such as pan-Asian instruments, Afro-Cuban rhythms, and film music orchestration. I'm a romantic who loves to create an atmosphere, set a mood or establish a scene in the mind of the listener. Jazz alone won't do it.

A critic, reviewing one of my CDs, said "their music is a fertile landscape without boundaries." That assessment feels right to me.

Your teaching approach:

Based on what I learned from my mentor, I advocate a lyrical, melodic approach to jazz which stands in contrast to the chord scale and pattern-based methods currently in vogue.

I believe that the improvised solo is an opportunity to express something entirely new and profoundly personal. I encourage my students to create their own melodies, tell their own stories, sing their own songs. The bandstand is no place to be plugging in recycled, memorized material.

In clinics and private lessons, we explore the mental processes that take place while playing a jazz solo and the skills required for true improvisation.

I emphasize deep listening and jazz-as-conversation, exploring the elements of music (melody, harmony, rhythm and form) from the soloist's perspective, and why the melody should be your guide when improvising.

Your dream band:

I already feel blessed to work with so many gifted musicians, but I hold out hope that one day I might get to meet and make music with Nancy Wilson.

Road story: Your best or worst experience:

I was working with a quintet at the Jazz Bakery in LA some years ago, when the leader called "The Outlaw," a Horace Silver tune. I said, "I've heard it, but I don't really know the tune," and he replied, "Don't worry. Just follow along. You'll pick it up."

I don't know if you've ever heard "The Outlaw," but the piece is kind of tricky. Not really something you can learn on the fly. I did my best to play it by ear, but needless to say, that particular performance was not my shining hour.

Wouldn't you know, after the song ended, the leader announced, "That was 'The Outlaw.' And ladies and gentlemen, we're delighted to have, in the audience tonight, the composer—Horace Silver!" At which point the man himself stood up in the back of the room.

The audience cheered. The band laughed. I was mortified. Needless to say, I apologized to Mr. Silver and after that, I learned the song.

Favorite venue:

My favorite venue in the world is L'inoui,in Redange, Luxembourg. It's a warm, intimate room with outstanding acoustics, run by Paul and Shlomit, two of the hippest people you'll ever meet. Ask anyone who has worked there and they'll tell you the same thing: magic happens at L'inoui.

Your favorite recording in your discography and why?

Our 2008 anthology, Best of Dmitri Matheny, is a good one because it brings together favorite material from several of our CDs.

The first Jazz album I bought was:

Miles Davis' Round About Midnight, because I liked that picture of Miles on the cover.

What do you think is the most important thing you are contributing musically?

As a composer and improviser, I'm all about melody and lyricism. For me, melody is the soul of a song. It comes first and matters most. Anyone can learn orchestration from Adler, or study arranging in school, but a melody is a precious, heaven-sent thing. My band is bringing melody back, and people dig that.

Did you know...

I've had two recurring dreams nearly every night for the past 40 years. One is a nightmare involving a malevolent circus clown. The other is a glorious dream in which I can fly.

CDs you are listening to now:

Nicholas Payton, Bitches (Concord);

Bernard Herrmann, The Day The Earth Stood Still (Varese);

Ohio Players, Skin Tight (Mercury);

Anne-Sophie Mutter, Beethoven Violin Concerto (DG);

Art Farmer/Bill Evans, Modern Art (United Artists).

Desert Island picks:

Miles Davis, Ascenseur Pour L'Chaffaud (Fontana);

Art Farmer, Warm Valley (Concord);

Taj Mahal, The Real Thing (Columbia);

Ella Fitzgerald, The Cole Porter Songbook (Verve);

Charlie Haden / Hank Jones, Steal Away (Verve).

How would you describe the state of jazz today?

Exciting and challenging: exciting, because of technology, the internet, social media, and all the new opportunities for connecting artists and audiences; challenging, because of the dual struggle to both make a living and make a difference.

In my more ambitious moments, I hope to make a contribution to the culture that will be remembered after I'm gone, the way Art Farmer did.

I would say the most difficult aspect of a career like mine is learning to persevere in the face of adversity. To keep on keeping on despite the manic ups and downs that inevitably occur. To maintain humility and quiet consistency, like the grandfather clock in the corner that steadily ticks away quietly, regardless of the weather outside.

What are some of the essential requirements to keep jazz alive and growing?

I can only speak for myself.

As a mid-career jazz artist, I see mentorship as key.

I wrote this the other day and taped it to my music stand:

Advice to Self at Mid-Life

Congratulations, you've made it to the halfway mark. So far, so good. Now consider this:

You're old enough now that they no longer praise your potential. All those years of encouragement about your bright future are over. It's quiet now.

At the same time, you're not yet old enough to join the ranks of those you so admire, the wise elders. You're not yet one of them. You don't speak for the ages. Few look to you for inspiration or advice.

These are the middle years.

Your past accomplishments and your hopes for tomorrow mean nothing. All that matters is what you do now:

Stay agile. Draw up plans, but be nimble enough to abandon them. Be persistent in fulfilling your vision, but also be ready to shift course based on the changing landscape. Be ever-evolving.

Take care of yourself. You're on your own, so be careful. Pace yourself. Cultivate healthy habits. Know your limits.

Pay attention. It's now your turn to provide encouragement. Learn to be a mentor. Look for opportunities to serve, celebrate and share.

What is in the near future?

Lately I've been obsessed with film noir and crime jazz. I've been writing arrangements of familiar movie themes from noir, spy thrillers and underworld crime dramas, as well as original compositions inspired by 1970s television detective crime dramas.

For example, my "Crime Scenes" suite is a dreamlike series of musical vignettes linked together with voiceover narration in the hard-boiled detective style of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. We've been performing this Jazz Noir material on tour, and plan to record it in the coming year.

What's your greatest fear when you perform?

I have no fear when I perform, but off the bandstand, I fear change, loss, my own mortality, circus clowns, shadow people...

What song would you like played at your funeral?

No funeral, please.

What is your favorite song to whistle or sing in the shower?

"Tell Me Something Good," by Stevie Wonder (Chaka Khan & Rufus)

If I weren't a jazz musician, I would be a:

Painter, poet or lighthouse keeper.

Photo Credit

Courtesy of Dmitri Matheny

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