Two Rising Jazz Stars Return to Play With Jeff Haskell Trio
April 5, 1996
By Janice Jarrett

Tucson, and in particular the Tucson Jazz Society, can take credit for advancing the cause of good music.

Two of the young and talented musicians who were awarded jazz society scholarships more than a decade ago, flugelhorn player Dmitri Matheny and saxophonist Tony Malaby, have each issued critically acclaimed CDs as leaders.

Happily for Tucson, Matheny and Malaby have great affection for their jazz alma mater. They are returning to play here with resident piano master Jeff Haskell and percussionist Ian Dogole in the opening concert of the Plaza Suite series Saturday at St. Philips Plaza.

Matheny's Red Reflections (Monarch) and Malaby's Cosas (Nine Wind Records) are important contributions to contemporary chamber jazz, music as dependent on a rich musical vocabulary as on a highly developed rapport among the players. Their "chamber music" has an intimacy and presence that is always present in the best of jazz but has been missing in the overproduced recordings that proliferated in the last decade.

Tucson Jazz Society scholarship winner Matheny went on to study at the Berklee College of Music, play in a variety of name bands, win awards and generally distinguish himself in the art. Even so, it's not his first gig at the Monterey Jazz Festival, and not his record deal, but the TJS scholarship that he names as his first real break.

"My whole life trajectory began with what the Tucson Jazz Society did for me," he says. "I was a high school kid living in the desert, trying to learn to play jazz, and I didn't have any clue as to what to do next. Yvonne Ervin (the jazz society's executive director) opened the door for me."

Ervin gave him his first real gig and wrote his first review. With the TJS scholarship, Matheny was able to go to the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy, a crucible for developing young and gifted dancers, musicians, painters and poets.

Attendance at Berklee gave him his education in core studies for jazz. Then Matheny broadened his professional chops with his own hard bop group and gigs in a variety of bands and styles from Motown to free jazz. During his 1989 debut at the Monterey Jazz Festival, the beauty of the Bay Area so struck him that he relocated to San Francisco.

His sound, described as "lyrical, lean and lithe" by JazzTimes' Jim Ferguson, is a full, warm horn voice reminiscent of his strongest influence, the great flugelhorn player Art Farmer. You can also hear some Miles Davis, some John Coltrane, and some of the newest sounds.

Matheny's West Coast accomplishments in just a few years are impressive: leader/composer for the SOMA Ensemble, artist-in-residence for the San Francisco Symphony Adventures in Music program, fundraiser for the San Francisco Jazz Festival and general manager of Monarch Records.

Monarch Records, largely staffed by veterans in the jazz recording business and specializing in studio or concert recordings of predominantly West Coast musicians, obviously believes Matheny, as both artist and general manager, can add breadth to its catalog.

It's a pleasant irony: Matheny is now in a position to open the door for other artists, just as the Tucson Jazz Society did for him.

Matheny's fellow scholarship alumnus, Malaby, remained in Tucson until about 1992, when he discovered there were more players in the Phoenix area who were developing in his same musical direction.

Malaby's four-nights-a-week gig at the Balboa Cafe in Tempe ended up being an intersection where like-minded New York and Los Angeles musicians came to play.

From this intersection, Malaby found the road to gigs in Los Angeles, to teaching residencies and eventually to New York City.

Malaby's sensitive, informed style, described in the Los Angeles Times as "confident lyricism," is integrally connected to a concept of playing improvisation "compositionally as a group."

"You're not playing chord change to chord change, you're playing a bigger chunk of what the composition is really about," he says. "To play free is really to be able to negotiate structure. We're into group interplay. Everyone's is a leading role."