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Dmitri Matheny has long been a fixture of the Bay Area’s jazz scene.
Matheny — an award-winning flugelhornist, composer, and recording artist — was born in Nashville and raised in Arizona. But he’s perhaps best known in San Francisco, where he lived and frequently performed with other jazz greats for more than 20 years.
He has appeared on countless jazz records, including 11 albums he released as the leader of his own band. His most recent album, a 2016 release called “Jazz Noir,” paid tribute to the smoky, haunting tunes that accompanied the mid-20th century detective thrillers that defined one of America’s most popular film genres.
Matheny is a prolific composer of national renown whose film scoring credits have contributed atmospheric songs to several recent movies and TV programs. He’s also an educator and ambassador-of-sorts for jazz. He has held countless student workshops and served as a trustee or board director for a number of jazz organizations and musical education groups.
Today, Matheny lives in the Pacific Northwest. But he still makes frequent return visits to the Bay Area, playing gigs and seeing old friends near his former San Francisco stomping grounds. Matheny will do exactly that again this week.
His quartet — the Dmitri Matheny Group — will perform at 7:30 p.m. March 30 at Bird & Beckett in San Francisco, followed by an April 3 performance at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park. Local News Matters recently chatted with Matheny via email and phone. Below is a Q&A based on those two conversations, in which Matheny shared his thoughts on a number of topics, including his musical heroes, plans for a new album, and the current challenges faced by Bay Area artists. (Part of the Q&A has been edited for space and continuity.)
Who were your musical heroes/influences when you were starting out?
Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Art Farmer and lots of singers: Ella Fitzgerald, Karen Carpenter, James Taylor, to name a few.
How did you get connected with legendary jazz musician Art Farmer?
I was introduced to Art by a mutual friend and was fortunate to study with him for 10 years. Art remains the single greatest influence on my music and life. I will forever be grateful to him for his generous spirit.
What did Art Farmer do for you as a mentor?
When I first started studying with him, he wasn’t a teacher, he was a full-time musician. I met him at the Village Vanguard (in Manhattan) after a show. I asked him for advice and to teach me. He said he was a musician and not a teacher. So I said, ‘Give me one lesson and then I’ll leave you alone.’ I lied to him of course. (laughs)
He gave me the lesson and I stayed and hung around him. We would go to (longtime jazz instructor) Carmine Caruso’s studio in New York City. It was near Carnegie Hall. Art and I would sit side by side on the piano bench, and he’d teach me all kinds of lessons. It was very different from how I learned in college, where I studied technical aspects of music — things like chord scale, harmony, jazz theory and analysis. His style was about knowing the vocals and lyrics, about ad-libbing, reacting, having a conversation, and being free in the moment. It was awesome. And it’s not just what he taught me about music and the fundamentals, but what he taught me about life. After a while, I followed him around all over the world and held his case for him. Sometimes, he answered ordinary touring musician questions for me, such as who feeds your cat when you’re on the road? Or how do you get your bass on the plane? Or how can you get the bartender to listen to your demo tape? You can graduate from school with a music degree, but they don’t talk about those practical, real-life problems that you have to figure out. The only way to get that information is to ask one of the old cats and Art was so generous with that.
Why did you choose to play the flugelhorn?
There’s no more warm-and-soulful a sound than the flugelhorn … except for maybe the voice of Mary Stallings.
When did you decide that you were going to be a jazz musician?
When I was 5 and my dad asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up, I told him, “a firetruck, the Green Lantern, and Miles Davis.” I’ve since learned all three are impossible goals, but in my heart-of-hearts, I still kind of believe.
Your song “Crime Scenes” is a tribute to San Francisco noir on your album “Jazz Noir.” What was the inspiration for the album and the focus of that one song?
I’ve long been obsessed with film noir and crime jazz. We love to play those familiar movie themes, as well as original compositions inspired by 1970s television detective crime dramas I watched as a kid. Some say noir was born in San Francisco when Dash Hammett wrote “The Maltese Falcon.” It’s definitely a Noir City. I lived and worked in that foggy, shadowy dreamscape for 20 years. I guess you could say “Crime Scenes” is my dark valentine to the City by the Bay.
Your San Francisco performance on March 30 will feature Burt Bacharach songs. What’s your connection to the pop composer?
I’m a child of the 1960s and ’70s and have always been a Bacharach fan. Three awesome things about Burt: (1) He pioneered the use of flugelhorn as a featured solo instrument in popular music; (2) he’s been writing weapons-grade earworms for decades; and (3) he’s 90 years old and still going strong! Have you heard his recent project with Ronnie Isley? It’s magnificent!
What will be the focus of your Sonoma State University appearance on April 3?
I’ll be performing in what they call Jazz Forum. It’s educational in nature, so I always try to get into the nitty-gritty of the music.
Sting made this album in 1999 called “Brand New Day.” It had all these different elements and influences, including French rap and Bossa Nova. And yet, when he was asked in an interview what the album was about, he simply said: “It’s a collection of love songs. These songs are about people.” I thought to myself: Now, that’s an interesting skill set. You need to be able to talk about the music in a way that everyone understands. But you also need to be able to talk to a musician. That is one of the things about this Sonoma State program — you have both type of people in the audience.
Why did you recently move out of the Bay Area?
It was time for a change. I now live in the Pacific Northwest, in a quiet little town halfway between Portland and Seattle. I live in Centralia, Wash. It’s like Pacifica or Half Moon Bay. I just love it up here. I spend 200 nights a year on the road, and this is a peaceful place to come home to. Plus, I was able to buy a nice house here for the price of a San Francisco parking ticket.
When I moved to San Francisco in 1989, I literally had 50 dollars in my pocket. I had no jobs or gigs. I didn’t have an apartment and I didn’t know anybody. I think about being a kid now and moving to San Francisco and trying to do that now. It was possible then. You move, you make friends, and you get a job in a bookstore or a cafe. It was eminently doable. And then, over the years, the tech boom happened, there was gentrification and what not, and I watched artists and musicians get pushed out of neighborhoods, like the Mission, that used to welcome artists. Friends who stayed got pushed out further and further and, at some point you’re no longer living in the San Francisco Bay Area if you’re commuting two-and-a-half hours just to get to the gig. I loved everything else about living in the Bay Area. You have intelligent, talented people there with smart things to say. I love the community of artists living there. And I’ve watched how the money has been allocated to diverse organizations, such as SF Jazz, the Jazzschool in Berkeley, and The Sound Room in Oakland. The Jazzschool — what a beautiful success story. Oakland School for the Arts is another example. These are beautiful people doing wonderful things. There’s an ethos in the Bay that celebrates artists and their work. That’s why it’s a little heartbreaking that it’s so hard for artists to survive there.
How would you describe the Bay Area’s jazz scene?
What are its strengths? Weaknesses?
Strengths: Brilliant artists and musicians, terrific venues, progressive politics, and a strong sense of community.
Weaknesses? Just one: Full-time creatives can’t afford to live there without a day job, working spouse, or side hustle.
Are some audiences different from others in different Bay Area venues, even though they might be just a few miles apart?
I think you’re onto something there. A special kind of alchemy goes into event planning, doesn’t it? There’s the band and what kind of crowd they can attract, plus the affordability of the cover charge or ticket price, the vibe and specific location of the venue, whether it’s a school, jazz club, bar, restaurant, concert hall, book store, community center. Are the people drinking? Is it an educated listening audience or a party crowd? So many considerations. Personally, we say yes to nearly every opportunity to perform, and we do pretty much the same social media/publicity rain dance for every gig. Otherwise, we leave the concert promotion to the experts.
When you get back to San Francisco, what is the first Bay Area-related thing you’re going to do on this trip?
I’m heading straight to Japantown for the uni udon at Mugizo. It’s the best.
Do you think jazz will ever regain the levels of national popularity it once enjoyed?
No, not the kind of melody-focused jazz I love, unfortunately. Nevertheless, we persist.
What’s next for Dmitri Matheny — another album?
Yes! I have a little more to say before I hang up my horn!
When can we expect a new album, and what will be the concept?
If I had an unlimited budget, I have so many recordings I’d still like to do. I’ve done a lot of different albums and performances. I did the noir thing. We did movie jazz, with movie images on the screen as we played. I’m doing a Burt Bacharach thing now. Year before last, I did a Chet Baker thing. I also did an Art Farmer-themed performance. After touring for months and then heading into the studio, recordings tend to be a catch-all of whatever we’re playing in concert at the time. I’d like to do a live recording because there’s a nice buoyancy we have now while playing onstage, and I’d like to capture that in a recording.
I have a concert promoter from Olympia, Wash., who said we’d like you to play only original recordings. I did it and it was so much fun. And it turns out I’m pretty good at that — putting together a list of music and I have this idea on how to structure a set. I was a little nervous about it. People want to be entertained, and to put together a list of originals, it has to hold their interest. But it went well. When I get the resources available, I want to do some of my originals, and other songs I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve never played a live album of original recordings, so that might be the next.