Interview with Dmitri Matheny
July 1, 2004
By Eric Nemeyer

JI: Tell us about growing up in Tennessee, Georgia and Arizona and the kinds of encouragement, surroundings, experiences and attitudes that provided the foundation for your career pursuits.

DM: The south is a beautiful, soulful place, despite deeply entrenched racial and class tensions. People smile at you and look you in the eye. Neighbors know one another.

Growing up in the south has given me a deep appreciation of human warmth and kindness; of southern hospitality. If you come to my show, I'm the host and you're my guest. It's my job to make you feel welcome and comfortable so we can enjoy each other's company. The south also gave me a love of the blues and spirituals, and ingrained in me a relaxed pace -- the southern stroll. I imagine you can hear these influences in my music.

When I was about twelve, we moved west to Arizona. I spent my formative years there, and I still feel a strong connection to the landscape. The desert gives you a perspective. It calms your spirit and invites contemplation, in much the same way that the ocean does in California. Play your horn into those canyons and foothills, and you'll experience for yourself the Japanese concept of "ma" -- the sacred silence between sounds.

At the end of high school, I left home to attend a private boarding school in Michigan called Interlochen Arts Academy. Interlochen was for me a magical place, populated by individualists, social misfits, and eccentrics — kids who, like me, were passionate about art. I loved Interlochen. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by creative people my own age: musicians, painters, actors, dancers...it was like coming home. Interlochen was where I learned the discipline required to build a life in the arts, and where I learned how rewarding an artist's life can be.

JI: What were some of the recordings you heard and experiences you had that inspired you to pursue a career as a jazz player?

DM: I credit my father [a naturalist and school teacher] and his hip record collection for kindling my childhood interest in music. There was great music on our turntable all the time, from Rachmaninoff to Ray Charles. According to Dad, one time when I was about five, he was spinning Kind of Blue. I asked, "Daddy what's that sound?" When he answered, "That's Miles Davis, a great jazz musician." I responded, "That's what I want to be when I grow up!" The story may be apocryphal, but Miles is still my man."

JI: After you graduated from Berklee College of Music [Boston] in 1989, you relocated to San Francisco. What benefits and what pitfalls or challenges do you experience by being based in San Francisco as opposed to New York?

DM: New York is Jazz Mecca, of course. It's the place to go if you want to meet great musicians and gain experience as a sideman. And L.A. is cool because you can see movie stars on the street. But San Francisco has always been my favorite American city. As Tony Bennett says, "San Francisco is America's Paris," so culturally rich and so livable, and the second largest jazz market in the country. I originally came out here from Boston to play at the Monterey Jazz Festival, but when I took that breathtaking drive down Highway One along the Pacific Ocean, I immediately fell in love with the area and decided to stay.

The question for me has always been, when I come home from the road, where do I want to come home to? We musicians travel quite a bit to make our living. Each place we visit has its unique charms, but when you spend so much of your life in hotels and airports, living out of a suitcase, your home really needs to be a  sanctuary; a place that feeds your soul. San Francisco is home to me. If I were ever to move, it would probably be to Kyoto or Paris.

JI: You've cited flugelhornist Art Farmer as your inspiration. Could you talk about his sound, his recordings and performances? Tell us about specific recordings and experiences you had with Farmer and his music that provided you with significant lessons about music and inspired your life and dreams.

DM: Art Farmer was my mentor and one of the wisest and kindest men I have ever met. My years under Art's tutelage was an invaluable part of my education. Art was my finishing school. I'm profoundly grateful to him for how generous he was with his time, sharing his wisdom about music and life.

Art taught me about what to value in this craft of jazz: the importance of taking risks and challenging yourself, but never losing the fundamental primacy of playing in tune with a mature tone above all.

He would say, "Fill that horn with air! It doesn't matter how hip you can play if you don't maintain a good sound." And he really walked the talk. Art developed a tone so rich, round and warm, it has become the gold standard for all of us who are serious about the big horn.

Farmer made over 200 recordings, many of them brilliant, but to my ears his masterpiece is Warm Valley on the Concord label. Art was at the top of his game, and the tunes he picked for the date are perfect showcases for the effortless logic of his improvisations. His band on the recording was one of his best, and they all give great performances [Akira Tana's playing on 'Three Little Words' is absolutely killing].

Art had a comfortable life in Vienna, with a house, a family and a steady gig as soloist with the radio orchestra there, but he never rested on his laurels. He continued to practice every day and develop as an artist, maintaining his profile, recording and touring internationally right up until the very end of his life.

When he died, Billy Taylor and I performed a duet at his memorial, and I was honored to play one of Art's flugelhorns. This is the horn I play today: a custom hybrid with an American Kanstul bell, French Besson lead-pipe and English Besson valves. I treasure this one-of-a-kind instrument, but I'll probably go to my grave trying to figure out how Art Farmer was able to produce such a gorgeous tone on it.

It's truly a remarkable gift, to meet your hero, the world's acknowledged master on your instrument, and for him to ultimately become your teacher and friend. Miraculously, it happened to me, and I will be forever grateful.

Mentor-protege relationships in jazz are so important. While it's wonderful that colleges, conservatories and other institutions are now embracing jazz education, I feel strongly that our master musicians need to maintain the lineage of the oral tradition. There are some things you just can't learn in school.

JI: In addition to Art Farmer, who have been some of the most influential musicians in your development, and what specific ways have they effected your music and artistry?

DM: There are so many, but I'll name a few.

I try to phrase like a singer, so I listen to a lot of vocalists, especially Ella Fitzgerald. Because I favor a melodic, lyrical approach to improvisation, most of the jazz instrumentalists I listen to are also from that tradition -- people like Stan Getz, Miles Davis, Paul Desmond, Chet Baker, Art Farmer and Ben Webster.

One of my favorite players on the scene currently is Ingrid Jensen. Ingrid is inspiring because she's expanding the vocabulary for trumpet and flugelhorn, extending the innovations of Kenny Wheeler and Woody Shaw in a very personal and compelling way. Incidentally, Art Farmer was also a fan of Ingrid, and predicted that she will ultimately be recognized as a major artist of historical significance.

JI: Could you cite one or more significant lessons learned or insights you took with you [about music or life in general] after your performing or recording experiences with James Moody, Max Roach, Sam Rivers, Bud Shank, Billy Taylor or Bobby Watson?

DM: All the master musicians you named generously shared the stage with us at one time or another. The lesson I learned from all of them is to follow their example, aspire to excellence, and pay it forward. So now that I'm having some modest success of my own, I try to encourage young talent they way I was encouraged by these great men. As James Williams used to say, "Jazz is about passing the torch, from one generation to the next."

JI: Could you share some of your perspectives about learning to improvise and the process of improvisation?

DM: I'm still learning; I'll always be learning. Currently, I'm working on eliminating the nonsense phrases from my improvisations -- the musical equivalent of "like," "ya know" and "umm." There are certain cliches I reflexively insert whenever I'm grasping for the next idea. I'm training myself to embrace more negative space during those searching moments, to simply be still and listen, to just pay attention, rather than to compulsively fill the space.

JI: Discuss the temptation to focus on technique over music that some artists experience. How have you worked to balance the two?

DM: For an artist, technique and creativity are both necessary. They are medium and muse. They're like your left foot and your right foot: you need both to get anywhere. Because technical mastery devoid of inspiration is bunk, and an artistic vision without the skill to express it is a tragedy. I always work on technical drills and etudes when I practice, but when I perform I forget about technique and play from the heart.

JI: What kinds of processes do you go through in composing songs. Please tell us about some of the rhythmic, melodic, harmonic or other sources that provide seeds for your creations.

DM: For me, melody is the soul of a song. It comes first and matters most. Anyone can learn orchestration from Adler, or study arranging in school, but a melody is a precious, heaven-sent thing. Some composers write religiously at the same time every day. Not me. I can't compose unless I am inspired. Occasionally I will feel an overwhelming desire to write late at night or at other inconvenient times. I've learned to pay attention to that feeling, to drop whatever I'm doing and "strike while the iron is hot." I write most prolifically when traveling, so you might say that many of my compositions are inspired by my travels. A melody will come to me and I'll sing it to myself, allowing it to evolve and develop organically in my mind. Eventually harmony, counterpoint and other formal elements will begin to suggest themselves. That's when I sit down and take out my score paper.

JI: How did your first CD, Red Reflections, develop? What kinds of preparation did you do for that recording?

DM: Red Reflections was my debut CD as leader, recorded when I was 29. We mostly recorded my originals. Art Farmer recommended that we include "The Outlaw" from the Horace Silver book. We also did a Michael Brecker tune we all used to play at jam sessions in Boston. We played a string of club performances and then went into the studio—old school—so the recording really captures our live quintet sound just as it was in the mid-'90s.

JI: Your album Starlight Cafe featured pianist Darrell Grant with whom you continue to work as a duo. What kinds of advantages, freedoms and challenges do you experience in that setting? Please cite one or more specific interesting or unusual performances or compositions that might help us feel what you experience in that setting?

DM: Grant & Matheny is my favorite project. Darrell Grant is simply the finest musician I've ever had the pleasure of working with. His conception is so complete that playing with him in duo is like being supported by a full symphony orchestra. And the two of us are such great friends; we really have a ball together on stage. Our repertoire includes everything from Spirituals to Sting to Samuel Barber, allowing us the opportunity to blend the intimacy and precision of chamber music with the vitality, freedom and spontaneity of improvisation. The result is an elegant "chamber jazz" unlike anything you've ever heard.

JI: How did your association with Azerbaijani pianist Amina Figarova develop? How does her playing provide a foil for or contrast with your own?

DM: Amina Figarova can play faster and with more energy than any horn player on the planet. I tease Amina and the "crazy Euros" about their intensity, but I admire their joie de vivre and their work ethic. They challenge me artistically and every performance is a party. Amina is a world class pianist and is one of the most distinctive jazz composers in Europe today. I met her at the Monk Institute's summer jazz colony in Aspen a few years ago and we hit it off. In the years to follow, our international band became like a family, touring and performing all over the world together and having a great time always.

JI: What kind of sound and group dynamic are you seeking when you lead your own group?

DM: I take the Miles Davis approach to band-leading: hire the best cats, give them lots of freedom, and embrace the music, wherever it leads.

JI: How do your private teaching efforts and the instructional clinics and workshops that you conduct impact your creativity and artistry? What are the benefits and/or the drawbacks?

DM: That's a great question. When I am at home in San Francisco, I serve as director of education for SFJAZZ, leading music education programs for children and adults. I love this work, and am energized by my colleagues and our students. Since accepting the appointment at SFJAZZ, it has been necessary for me to spend less time on the road; however, I have experienced a corresponding burst of creativity and productivity in my other composing, performing and recording projects.

JI: Tell us about the Friends of Matheny Music and the Art Farmer Memorial Scholarship to the Young Musicians Program of the University of California, Berkeley.

DM: Both are very close to my heart. A few years ago some of our patrons started the Friends of Matheny Music, to support our educational and charitable activities in the community, such as visiting artist residencies and free concerts for children in the schools. The Friends are much more than your typical "fan club." Their annual, tax-deductible contributions enable us to take on important community projects, and in appreciation for their support, we extend special privileges to them such as preferred seating during our annual Home Season. One of their success stories is an endowed scholarship in memory of Art Farmer. Through this fund, a different aspiring young artist each year receives conservatory training at the Young Musicians Program of UC Berkeley.

JI: You recorded and produced a number of albums for a San Francisco-based label. Could you tell us about those experiences?

DM: Like so many independent jazz labels, Monarch Records was a labor of love. None of us got rich, but we had fun and were able to make available some quality music by Cedar Walton, Dave Ellis, Eddie Marshall and others. We released dozens of recordings before the company was sold. I am most proud of our live recording by Art Farmer, one of his last and best.

JI: Could you share some of your business experience—especially any eye opening lessons you've gleaned—as an artist dealing with record labels, producers or managers?

DM: I'll share something Art Farmer told me about the music business. When I was trying to choose a manager, he advised, "Most cats think they need a powerful representative with lots of contacts, but Dmitri, if you find somebody you can really trust, stick with 'em, because in our business, that's gold."

JI: What are some of the essential non-musical qualities that artists who are seeking success and respect in the music industry must develop?

DM: Humility and quiet consistency, like the grandfather clock in the corner that steadily ticks away quietly, regardless of the weather outside.

JI: How do you stay balanced as an artist and as an individual given the many distractions and stress that surround us?

DM: When I feel overly stressed by my own ambitions and aspirations, I find it helpful to set them aside for awhile, focus on helping other people, get out into nature, or to spend time with family and friends. When the chaotic and competing demands of others overwhelm me, I just stop. To sit still and do nothing requires a great amount of self-discipline, but counter-intuitively, non-action is often the best course of action. In the silence, clarity may be restored, and the dance begins anew.

JI: What authors, artists, philosophers or others have significantly influenced you and how?

DM: I'm a voracious reader of Asian classics. Lately I've been reading the collected works of Eihei Dogen, a thirteenth century Japanese teacher in the Soto Zen tradition. Dogen's writing on time and the nature of existence reveals the precise mind of a scientist interpreted through the poetic soul of an artist. He would have made a phenomenal jazz musician!

JI: Briefly, how do you want your music to influence people? What do you want it to say or do?

DM: The power of music is that it expresses what words cannot.

JI: What foundational understandings are the guideposts by which you live your life?

DM: That we are, all of us, interconnected. Life is a work of art, each one of us is an artist, and compassion is our medium of expression. Daily we have the opportunity to create and shape our lives.

JI: In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's mind there are few. As artists, we experience this paradox. Many of us feel we have to be as practiced, expert and competent as possible. But the moment we perceive ourselves as experts, and enlarged egos emerge, we face the pitfall of stopping or impeding our own growth and artistic possibility. What are your views?

DM: Right on.