Matheny horns in on jazz greats’ world
Friday December 8, 1995
By Wayne Saroyan

From the opening notes of flugelhornist Dmitri Matheny's debut CD, Red Reflections, there's a languid, romantic tone that instantly warms itself to the listener. As he sketches out the first lyrical, sinuous lines that begin a musical journey through the various moods of his emotionally expressive music, it’s evident why the 29-year-old Bay Area horn player is among the hottest young musicians on the local scene in jazz.

He celebrates the release of the new disc (on the Peninsula-based Monarch label) Tuesday at the intimate Plush Room in San Francisco.

Matheny consciously avoided turning his debut CD into an “Introducing Dmitri Matheny”-type showcase project. “What I was trying to do was to create a concept recording that’s an entire composition unto itself,” he explains in a recent conversation. “There was a very specific atmosphere that I was trying to create in the recording: a mysterious, introspective, kind of melancholy feeling. Reflective.

“If you put the record on and listen to it from beginning to end,” says Matheny, “the whole thing takes you on a journey. One tune leads into another, and the mood changes, but not radically or with such contrast that it feels unnatural. But I’m not trying to tell a story in a linear way. There’s a mental, visual image in my writing and improvising that I try to translate into a more abstracted sound.”

It took an entire year, and three different sessions, to get all the material ready for “Red Reflections.” But, says Matheny - who wanted to make his first album 12 years ago, after hearing trumpeter Wynton Marsalis’ first album - it was worth the wait.

Matheny also prefers the warm, sweeter tones of the flugelhorn over its brassier counterpart, the trumpet, which he first started playing at the age of 9 and further explored in high school and, later, the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

The most obvious influences in Matheny’s musically formative years, he says, were Miles Davis and Art Farmer. When I was in college, (Farmer) was my private teacher for a number of years. And Art was the person who encouraged me to play flugelhorn, and quit doing all these terrible things to the trumpet. Literally, and figuratively.

“The natural sound of the trumpet is something I really don’t like,” says Matheny, “and so I was always doing strange things to try to get a warm, dark sound. And Art, who was playing only flugelhorn at the time, was getting the most beautiful brass sound I’d ever heard. So that’s when I switched to flugelhorn.”

Matheny came West in 1989 with saxophonist Dave Valdez for a gig at the Monterey Jazz Festival. “The natural beauty of the place just knocked me out,” he recalls. “And I thought, ‘How can I go back to Boston after this?’” Within six months, he was hired as the principal fund-raiser for the San Francisco Jazz Festival, and began to call the Bay Area home. He also performed frequently around the Bay as leader of the acclaimed SOMA Ensemble.

Now a  part-time consultant with Monarch Records, Matheny still works with the Jazz Festival, and spends his mornings with the San Francisco Symphony’s “Adventures in Music” program, which sends musicians of all different genres into the public schools.  “You perform in every elementary school in the San Francisco Unified School District. Forty-nine gigs a year, including some at 8 o’clock in the morning. It’s hard work,” says Matheny, “but the kids love it.”

Matheny isn’t resting on his laurels as his first CD moves into the world, but he’s taken time to enjoy the sweetness of the moment.

“I’m already putting music together for my next recording,” says Matheny, “but I also believe in enjoying what’s happening right now.” At record stores, Matheny finds his debut effort tucked neatly between Wynton Marsalis and Pat Metheny - impressive company to keep. “It’s really exciting, and I’m trying to enjoy these little moments,” marvels Matheny. “I’ve been waking up every day and just laughing.”