Tradin’ Fours: Naked and Upfront
January 1996
By Dan Ouellette

Instead of leading off his debut album with a blast of dazzling flugelhorn chops, Dmitri Matheny opens Red Reflections (Monarch) with a gorgeous title track, a film noir-like mood piece that features him musing on his horn. It’s a fitting introduction to the 30-year-old San Francisco-based musician, who says that touching listeners with emotion is a higher goal than having some trumpet jock applaud him on his speed and technique.

“I wanted the horn to be naked and upfront to draw attention to the feel of the piece,” Matheny explains between bicoastal CD release parties at the Plush Room in San Francisco last December and the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall in New York in February. “I’m inspired by vocalists like Abbey Lincoln, whose performances are so immediate. She’s not thinking about technique or the shape of the next notes.”

Born in Nashville and raised in Tucson, Arizona, Matheny got his first taste of trumpet when he heard his father playing the classic Miles Davis record Kind Of Blue. While he excelled learning to play the instrument, Matheny was frustrated with his tone quality. “The sound I was getting was too brassy, brash and edgy,” he recalls. “I went to ridiculous lengths to try to get a warmer, more lyrical tone like Miles. I experimented with enormous mouthpieces, stuffed athletic socks into the bell and even scrubbed off the lacquer with Brillo pads. I ruined a couple of trumpets until I discovered the flugelhorn.”

In the next several years, including stints at the Interlochen (Michigan) Arts Academy and Berklee College of Music, Matheny played both trumpet (on bebop numbers) and flugelhorn (on ballads). However, as he began to commit more time to his own compositions, he found himself focusing on the flugelhorn and letting the trumpet gather dust on the bandstand. The clincher came when Art Farmer took Matheny on as a student. “His playing was technicolor and 3-D compared to my black-and-white and two-dimensional sound. He told me if I wanted to play flugelhorn, I’d have to practice the big horn. He convinced me to set aside the trumpet.”

After graduating from Berklee in 1989, Matheny moved to San Francisco and formed the SOMA Ensemble. For his live-in-the-studio Red Reflections album, Matheny enlisted SOMA bandmates John Heller on guitar, tenor saxophonist Dave Ellis and drummer Scott Amendola (both from the Charlier Hunter Trio) and bassist Trevor Dunn.

In addition to jaunts through Horace Silver’s “The Outlaw” and Michael Brecker’s “Take a Walk,” Matheny and company deliver several of his self-described “tone poem” compositions, including the scorching “Myth Of The Rainy Night,” the first movement of an extended suite about Jack Kerouac. “It was inspired by Kerouac’s frenetic pace of writing. This section represents his warped beatnik version of the American Dream from On The Road. Another motive in writing this was to challenge myself. The popular notion of West Coast jazz is that musicians sit around, drink white Zinfandel and get lazy out here. This is our response.”