By TD Mobley-Martinez
First, put aside your guilt. You’ve probably never heard of Dmitri Matheny. And that makes sense, really. Last year Matheny was voted as a talent deserving wider recognition by Down Beat magazine’s critics poll.
You may never have heard of his instrument either. Before Matheny, Chuck Mangione was the “only guy who played flugelhorn exclusively and made a lot of money.”
But listen to Starlight Cafe, Matheny’s latest album, and it will sound seductively familiar, like you’ve been listening to his ebony tones and molasses rhythms all your life.
These are loose and easy tunes, liquid silky, and yet Matheny’s improvisations -- with Darrell Grant on piano and Bill Douglas on bass -- still press the limits of standards like “Stardust” and “When You Wish Upon a Star.”
His third album is an intimate confection imbued with a warm delicacy, mellow lyricism and lacy elegance of the midnight strains of jam sessions playing in another room. “Played to perfection,” the back of the CD suggests, “Starlight Cafe is best savored when the lights are low.”
“It’s hard to make instrumentals — music without vocals — that are both popular and substantial,” Matheny says. “People automatically thing you’re selling out.”
At 33, Matheny is not selling out. No one working this hard could ever be accused of selling out. Touring April through October, Matheny also teaches in the Bay Area, composes, records and presents what he calls a “home season” November through March.
Then there’s the newsletter. The slick publication offers flugel gourmet gift baskets (“New!”), album cover posters, Matheny CDs and the special benefits of membership to the Jazz Ambassadors. Your non-tax-deductible $100 includes a membership card, subscription to the newsletter, a free Matheny compact disc and T-shirt and an “exclusive invitation for two to the annual Holiday Party in December.” Membership supports Matheny’s “ongoing work in jazz education and composition.”
It’s hard work being Dmitri Matheny. But it’s better than stringing together a series of possibly lucrative, but essentially empty one-nighters, he says. He’s hoping that stops like the ones in New Mexico - he’s played the Outpost Performance Space four times - will evolve into a kind of mini-residency.
Matheny will be playing in both Santa Fe and Albuquerque this weekend.
“It’s more fulfilling to get inside a community, to meet the musicians,” Matheny says. “For me, it’s more artistically fulfilling than just showing up and playing.”
Inspired by Miles Davis, Matheny, who grew up in Arizona, started playing trumpet at 9, later graduating from the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy. While attending the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Matheny put aside jazz to make the rent, playing with the pit orchestras, roving big bands, and “has-been” groups like the Temptations, Martha Reeves and Sam Rivers that came through town.
Over the years he struggled to get the dark, mellifluous sound Davis had coaxed from the trumpet. “I was doing just dreadful things to the instrument,” he says. “Stuffing athletic socks into the bell of the horn. Someone told me... if you take the lacquer off the instrument you get a darker sound. There I am scrubbing at it.”
Then he found his voice. “I got a flugelhorn and I immediately fell in love with it.”
Over the years, he played the flugelhorn as well as the trumpet. Like most trumpet players, he treated the flugelhorn as a backup. “I never did get the kind of sound out of the flugelhorn that I wanted to get. I wanted a fat tone.”
By the time he was 18, he had begun studying with Art Farmer, a jazz statesman who played a hybrid instrument he called a flumpet. Farmer told him: “If you want to play the flugelhorn, play it. Get rid of the trumpet and practice.”
“So I sold it and focused on the flugelhorn,” Matheny says.
Playing such an unusual instrument forced Matheny to focus on his own work. There isn’t much use for a flugelhorn in the middle of a section of trumpets, he says. And for a while, it was hard. “There were times I thought about going out and buying a trumpet,” he says.
That didn’t happen, and today Matheny looks forward more than he looks back.
“I’ve recently had sort of an epiphany about music,” Matheny says. “I think in school I was pretty much a jazz Nazi.”
“I realized that when Miles Davis played ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ that was pop music,” Matheny says. “The idea of Tin Pan Alley and the 32-bar song form doesn’t really make any sense anymore.”
His next album, he says, will take him into new territory, blending some of the influences of pop music with a jazz sensibility. No smooth jazz, though.
“I have to say that a lot of my favorite music is not jazz,” Matheny says. “More and more I move toward melody and lyricism.”
And that’s not hard to hear on Starlight Cafe. That far sound, which draws a line directly to mentor Farmer, waffles and moans with the expressiveness of a doomed chantuese.
“I feel like a frustrated singer,” he says. “My instrument is between you and me, between me and the audience.”
Matheny searches for the sound of sincerity. Matheny gravitates back to that word again and again.
“People don’t talk about it. The critics and musicians rarely address it, but audiences get it,” he says. “For instance, John Tesh. I don’t like his music. I don’t think he’s a great musician and I don’t want to hear it, but he absolutely believes in his music and people love that.”