Dmitri Matheny Looks Up for Inspiration
By Ken Franckling
The art of playing ballads seemed lost for a time in jazz as bebop and hard bop players opted more for frantic cascades of notes than the purity and beauty of an understated melody, San Francisco-based flugelhorn player Dmitri Matheny is making sure that the ballad form lives on — with a warm, romantic tone and the encouragement from his mentor, jazz flugelhorn dean Art Farmer.
"Art is my hero, my favorite musician on the planet," Matheny said. "You don't hear too many contemporary musicians into influences like Chet Baker, Art Farmer and Miles Davis. You hear more from the Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Woody Shaw school."
But high octane trumpeting, a la Hubbard, Morgan and Shaw, isn't Matheny's interest, as shown nicely on his newest recording, Penumbra, released this summer by Monarch Records.
He found an unusual, extraterrestrial inspiration for his cool playing and composing. All of the originals and standards performed by Matheny's quintet have a lunar connection — from his own three-part "Moon Song" suite to Tom Harrell's Moon Alley, the chestnut "Moonlight in Vermont" and even rocker Neil Young's "Harvest Moon."
"I'm not sure what inspired it, but I have been completely fascinated by the moon and stars lately," Matheny said. "As I was writing this music, inspired by the moon, I was also going back through recordings that had moon theme music.
"I found a lot of great jazz with that theme, almost always minor and modal. All of them have a mysterious, introspective, melancholy quality. It is a nice springboard.
"The other musicians in my band (tenor saxophonist Dave Ellis, guitarist John Heller, bassist Bill Douglass and drummer Kenny Wollesen) may or may not share my fascination, but I know they enjoy getting into a sort of Kind of Blue space musically whether the are thinking about the moon or not."
Compositionally, Matheny said his lunar explorations offer a writing challenge. "The moon is not only profoundly beautiful and direct, it is also sort of terrifying," he said. "There is nothing intellectually scary as it hangs out there in space.
"But if you are going to think of the dark side — the desert-like quality of the surface, the wide open space — you can't just write a ballad, you also have to give it an edge. Man's insignificance probably has a lot to do with it."
Matheny's "Moon Song Trinity" — consisting of "Sea of Tranquility," "Sea of Serenity" and "Sea of Fertility" — was premiered at three separate concerts that were scheduled when the moon was full. His band performed the entire suite at the Monterey Jazz Festival last September, then went into the studio to record Penumbra over the following two days. Coincidentally, they discovered that the last full lunar eclipse of the millennium was taking place on one of those nights. The session is a significant departure from his Monarch debut, Red Reflections, which was released in 1995.
This month, Matheny is performing 40 concerts up and down the West Coast. The tour includes clubs, colleges, music store appearances, jazz festivals and live radio broadcasts.
Matheny, 31, was born on Christmas Day in 1965 in Nashville, where he took up the trumpet at age nine. His family moved to Tucson, Arizona when he was 11. Inspired by the beauty of the desert, young Matheny spent hours a day practicing in its foothills and canyons.
Four years of serious study at Boston's Berklee College of Music between 1984 and 1989 while moonlighting with performances at night to pay his tuition, strengthened his resolve to develop his own music. In the late 1980s, he shifted from trumpet to flugelhorn as he searched for a darker sound that fit the music he heard inside of him.
He was fortunate to meet Art Farmer at the Village Vanguard in New York during one of the Vienna resident's annual trips back to the U.S. Farmer agreed to take him on as a student.
In addition to performing, Matheny is writing music for film scores and a San Francisco Museum of Modern Art CD-ROM package.
He said he is also starting to plan an interdisciplinary millennium concert he wants to produce in San Francisco that will bring together art, music, the spoken word, computer-generated imaging and dance.