Dmitri Matheny & The SOMA Ensemble
By Elizabeth Goodwin
For Dmitri Matheny, it’s the mood of his songs that’s important to convey to listeners.
The twenty-seven-year-old flugelhornist is putting the finishing stylistic touched on Red Reflections, his debut release for Palo Alto-based Monarch Records. The title track has a dark, eerie theme that sounds like a great soundtrack to a jazz film.
“The piece that I’ve written called 'Red Reflections' is one in a series of compositions that attempt to be sound paintings, to create a mood or a landscape in the mind of the listener,” said Matheny while snacking on calamari at a Berkeley cafe.
“The idea for ‘Red Reflections’ is sort of a film noir thing. We get these nights sometimes in the Bay Area, when it’s foggy and misty and you can see the red lights of the cars reflecting on the pavement. That’s the mood of this piece - kind of an urban city night landscape,” the San Francisco resident adds.
Affable, witty, and a sharp self-promoter, Matheny is far from new to the music scene. Before he decided to launch his solo career, he founded the SOMA Quartet. The quartet featured Sandi Poindexter on violin, John Heller on guitar, and Arlington Houston on bass.
“Playing in the SOMA Quartet was fun. It was really a great experience,” Matheny says, looking more like a college student than a professional musician who has played live with the superstar likes of The Temptations, Fabian, Martha Reeves and jazz giant Sam Rivers.
“But it got to the point where we all got a little jaded. We started doing less writing and getting more excited about other outside projects. So we all came to a mutual understanding: we felt it was time to try other things,” he reflects.
The quartet, assembled in 1989, was named SOMA after a drug that was mentioned throughout Aldous Huxley’s “anit-utopian novel about an oppressive government” (as Matheny puts it), Brave New World.
“In the book, they keep saying that if only we had Soma, then everything would be all right. So I decided to name the quartet SOMA. I actually named the group before I got to the Bay Area. I found out that SOMA in San Francisco means South of Market. It’s an area in which we ended up playing quite a bit because there are lots of clubs and restaurants there.”
Last year, he says, the SOMA Quartet was hired by the San Francisco Symphony for a program called “Adventures in Music.” The quartet performed eighty-five concerts in the San Francisco Unified School District. “We got a chance to introduce the kids to jazz and tell them a little bit about improvisation.” In the course of his own personal development, Matheny was offered scholarships by some of the top music schools in the country, (such as North Texas State University, the University of Miami and Berklee College of Music in Boston).
Matheny credits his flugelhorn discipline and chops to flugelhorn master and jazz great Art Farmer, his instructor.
“I’ll never forget that first lesson. We sat next to each other on the piano bench. I wanted to impress him, to show him how I knew his stuff. So I played some of his solos — some fast, tricky business that I’d memorized from his recordings. I really thought I was doing something. He just listened politely because he’s a real gentleman, a very warm, gracious man. When I finished he said, ‘You know, you lose your tone in the low register,’ and he played one note — a low D — and it was the warmest, clearest most beautiful sound I’d ever heard. I was awestruck. Now, when we get together, I don’t play much. I mostly just listen!” he exclaims.
Matheny, who graduated cum laude with a degree in professional music from Berklee in 1989, says he’d like to take his musical training and his lessons from Farmer and apply all he’s learned toward writing soundtracks for films. “To take a song and give it a mood, like what Miles Davis did, that would be the thing for me. That takes a different kind of approach and vision.”
The flugelhornist has an upcoming gig October 22 at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz. His performance is billed as Dmitri Matheny and the SOMA Ensemble. It will be a quintet which will feature the hard-edged sax work of Harvey Wainapel.
But for now, the savvy San Franciscan is interested in articulating his musical ideas.
“For me, the most important thing is for music to be heartfelt. You know, it doesn’t make any difference whether it’s jazz or rock or whatever it may be, just as long as the artist is sincere. That’s what matters most.”