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JAZZ NOIR Liner Notes By EDDIE MULLER 

Ask people to name a musical instrument synonymous with film noir, and it’s a safe bet no one will say the flugelhorn, the ax of choice for my man, Dmitri Matheny. It’d be the saxophone, by a landslide. Which is strange, because sax barely figures in scores from the classic era of film noir, roughly 1944-54. Orchestral strings set the tone, in the work of such geniuses as Miklós Rózsa (Double Indemnity), Franz Waxman (Night and the City), and Roy Webb (Out of the Past). 

People hearing that saxophone aren’t wrong, however. It’s an understandable misconception, based on how the elastic notion of noir was integrated and adapted into the cultural bloodstream by crime writers, film and television producers, and jazz musicians. It’s a dark and twisted road that’s led us from The Killers (Rózsa, 1946) to Odds Against Tomorrow (John Lewis, 1959) to Taxi Driver (Bernard Herrmann, 1976) to Mulholland Drive (Angelo Badalamenti, 2001). In the roadhouses along the way, combos and arrangements have constantly changed—but the song has remained the same: you suffer for your desire … so you may as well suffer with style. 

Dmitri Matheny and I charted this route years ago when we collaborated on a “Jazz-Noir” film series for SFJAZZ, which drew on our respective knowledge of music and film. I came away from the experience with a keener insight and deeper appreciation of the scoring of many favorite films. If our conspiracy struck the spark for this album, I’m proud of the small role I played and thrilled that you get to reap the benefit. I’m just tickled to be name-checked (between Herb Caen and Tony Bennett!) in the album’s centerpiece, “Crime Scenes,” a 12-minute suite that delves into the sexy and sinister side of San Francisco, featuring some amusingly “hard-boiled” spoken-word poetry, including a dame who will “draw a chalk outline around your heart.” It pays loving, backhanded tribute to my hometown, and local sleuths ranging from Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon) to Mike Stone (The Streets of San Francisco). 

That’s what I love about Dmitri’s take on noir—it travels the whole route, reaching back to caress the sinuous notes of the venerable “Caravan,” a Juan Tizol composition from 1936 made famous by the Duke Ellington Orchestra, then tracing that sultry promise forward to find Audrey Horne slinking around in shrouded rooms to Badalamenti’s score for Twin Peaks. In these grooves (can’t help it, grew up in a vinyl world), Matheny leads his crack crew through a sonic history of noir, with nods to composers ranging from Harold Arlen to Lalo Schifrin. 

The opening “Noir Medley” weaves together unforgettable swatches of scores by Henry Mancini (Touch of Evil), Jerry Goldsmith (Chinatown), David Raksin (Laura), Bernard Herrmann (Vertigo, Taxi Driver) and Harold Arlen (Blues in the Night), and instantly proves that, yes, the flugelhorn can evoke— perfectly—the nocturnal longing of the best noir. 

Matheny crafts an eight-minute Gold Medal paperback out of poet Dana Gioia’s “Film Noir,” a pungent roux of small-town trouble straight out of Black Wings Has My Angel, featuring a discontented dame who, “if she shot you dead would finish your drink.” 

The extra kick in this road trip is the juxtaposition of venerable jazz standards (“Stormy Weather,” “Estate”) with unexpected, underappreciated gems such as John Williams’ gorgeous “The Long Goodbye,” composed for Robert Altman’s 1973 revisionist take on Philip Marlowe, and Stevie Wonder’s “Golden Lady,” from the same year. (If you don’t think “Golden Lady” is noir, revisit the lyrics: the poor sap is dying to sell his soul for his dream girl.) 

Other surprises: a haunting version of Polish composer Bronislaw Kaper’s High Wall, the title theme for the 1947 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer noir of the same name, and the band’s jaunty exit with “What Now My Love?” French composer Gilbert Bécaud’s renowned 1961 hit, covered by everyone from Shirley Bassey to Sonny and Cher, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass to Elvis Presley. 

Especially poignant for me is Matheny’s cover of Charlie Haden and Quartet West’s 1995 “Here’s Looking at You,” itself a tribute to the classic noir films that inspired Quartet West’s rich, romantic sound. It’s a beautiful, elegiac nod to a recently fallen comrade. 

Like Haden, Dmitri Matheny is an artist who manages to find beauty blooming in the darkest corners. He’s a good man to have along if you’re planning a long drive through an uncertain night. 

—Eddie Muller 

Known internationally as the “Czar of Noir,” Eddie Muller is a writer, producer and impresario. He is the founder of the Film Noir Foundation, which rescues and restores at-risk noir films from around the globe, and producer and host of San Francisco’s NOIR CITY, the largest festival of film noir in the world (now with seven satellite festivals around the U.S.). He frequently appears on Turner Classic Movies, and has lectured on film noir at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

REMEMBERING ORRIN KEEPNEWS (1923-2015) Podcast

MOON ROCKS (KEEPNEWS BLUES) from the album PENUMBRA
(L-R) Dave Ellis tenor saxophone, Dmitri Matheny flugelhorn, Orrin Keepnews producer,
Bill Douglass bass, Kenny Wollesen drums, John Heller guitar

Michigan Tour Diary — Day 7 

Dmitri Matheny Group JAZZ NOIR
Michigan Tour Diary — Day 7
April 17 Berkley and Ann Arbor

Returning to Southern Michigan after our adventures in the Great White North,
today I led a workshop at Berkley High School and played a concert at
Ann Arbor's celebrated Kerrytown Concert House.

Warmest thanks to founder and artistic director Deanna Relyea
for creating such a beautiful listening room and including us on the KCH schedule.

What a privilege to collaborate with such talents as these:
the brilliant young Detroit saxophonist Marcus Elliot,whose debut album I absolutely love;
Quad Cities pianist Corey Kendrick, enthusiastically recommended to me by Reggie Thomas;
veteran bassist Tom Knific, a world class musician, mentor and friend since my Interlochen days;
and rising star Sean Dobbins, that all-too-rare sort of drummer who simmers with quiet intensity,
and then—at just the right moment—turns on the swang!

And what an honor to perform for and meet one of my longtime idols, jazz master Marcus Belgrave!

Mr. Belgrave and his lovely wife Joan (a vocalist I knew years ago in San Francisco)
are pillars of the Michigan arts community and two of the warmest, most soulful people on the planet.
Sassy and I are looking forward to getting together with them again next week.

If I accomplish nothing else on this tour, I did at least survive
the terrifying and humbling (yet thrilling) experience of
playing 'Stardust' in front of the great Marcus Belgrave.

A Flug-tastic Weekend 

Just ahead:

Friday 2/28 @ 4:30 PM Phoenix AZ | Workshop at South Mountain Community College
Friday 2/28 @ 7:00 PM Phoenix AZ | Concert at South Mountain Community College

Saturday 3/1 @ 2:00 PM South San Francisco CA | Workshop at El Camino High School

Saturday 3/1 @ 8:00 PM Berkeley CA | Concert at California Jazz Conservatory

Sunday 3/2 @ 2:00 PM Berkeley CA | Workshop at California Jazz Conservatory

Monday 3/3 @ 2:00 PM Los Gatos CA | Workshop at Los Gatos High School

 

I've been in residence this week in the music department of South Mountain Community College, giving master classes and rehearsing with the talented musicians in the school's day and evening jazz programs. Tonight we perform in the college's beautiful theater for the SMCC Jazz Festival. The concert is a showcase for the SMCC Jazz and Latin Jazz ensembles. I'll appear as guest soloist with both groups; my quintet (featuring Andrew Gross, Nick Manson, T-Bone Sistrunk and Dom Moio) will headline.

 

Tomorrow I'll present a jazz improvisation clinic at the ECHS Jazz Festival in South San Francisco, then tomorrow night the Dmitri Matheny Group (featuring Dave Ellis, Matt Clark, Seward McCain and Leon Joyce Jr) performs at the newly renamed California Jazz Conservatory (formerly the Jazzschool) in Berkeley. Hearty congratulations to Susan Muscarella and the CJC faculty on receiving accreditation from the National Association of Schools!

 

Sunday it's a Melodic Mastery workshop at the CJC, then down to the South Bay for a Monday master class at Los Gatos High School. Upward and onward!