By Stuart Kremsky
August 1, 1997
This guy can play.
Dmitri Matheny concentrates on the moody flugelhorn, a la his mentor Art Farmer. Working with a superbly balanced band (longtime associate John Heller on guitar, veteran Bay Area bassist Bill Douglass, the snappy and tasteful Kenny Wolleson on drums, and Monarch labelmate tenor man Dave Ellis) under the guidance of producer Orrin Keepnews, Matheny has crafted a quiet gem in Penumbra, a “theme” album.
Matheny pays his respects to two trumpeters as the disc opens with Tom Harrell’s “Moon Alley” and Lee Morgan’s “Desert Moonlight.” In the center of the program, Matheny’s two originals, the title piece, very slow and tender with a hauntingly lovely flugelhorn solo, and “Moon Song Trilogy,” sustain the mood. Think of trumpet-driven Blue Note dates (Lee Morgan or Kenny Dorham) crossed with ECM-style sessions by the likes of John Abercrombie or Paul Motian and you’ll get a good sense of this CD. For variety, Rob Burger contributes his bittersweet accordion to “Sea Of Tranquility” and Douglass performs the traditional Chinese melody “Autumn Moon” as a hsiao solo. (A hsiao is a type of flute.) In a bid to stretch the repertoire (and possibly the audience) a little, the group takes on Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” and makes that pretty, before retreating to the most common denominator, the blues, in a tune restructured by producer Keepnews in the studio, and named for him by Matheny. Ellis is excellent here, a sinuous and assertive blues player in the great tenor saxophone tradition. Everybody gets a short solo on this one, before the tantalizing fade-out. Penumbra is that rarity, a genuinely mellow and serene disc with wide appeal.