By Stella Houston
On Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday the I Have a Dream Foundation sponsored a concert by Dmitri Matheny & the SOMA Ensemble. The group consists of Matheny on flugelhorn, Harvey Wainapel on alto, John Heller on guitar, Regi Oliver on tenor, John Wiitala on bass, and Eddie Marshall on drums.
The room was overflowing with audience and anticipation. I have been aware of the SOMA Ensemble for awhile and know Matheny personally, but I had not heard the group live. I was full of anticipation, and I was pleased and impressed by Matheny’s flugelhorn. The sound was rounded and rich, seamless and sweet. It is a beautiful sound. He stayed away from the microphones and skillfully controlled the instrument so it wouldn’t overcrowd the rest of the group. He blended in where he should and stood out where he needed. After the beautiful lines from Wainapel on the first piece, the audience exploded with applause and whistles.
“The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” showed off a typically brilliant performance from Wiitala, swinging his way with Marshall backing up all those swings. The piece blended wonderfully, as if these guys have practiced long and hard.
On “Killer Joe,” the guitar stated the theme and was followed by a tenor duet from Wainapel and Oliver which turned into three-part harmony when the flugelhorn intervened, playing on top of the chording of the guitar and bass line. Well, of course, that became more than a three-part harmony, but on the other hand, a jazz solo is never a true solo, either. Matheny slid his tones, accented the high notes, ran some sixteenths and triplets against the basic beat, and then projected and soared on a climactic phrase before ending his chorus with a calm, sweet melody. He jerked his horn a little to his right at the end of phrases, like a comma in a sentence - a small jerk for a small comma.
Wainapel ran up and down his instrument, lingering on the highest notes and building to the crest before cascading into the depths, supported only by the steady bass line and guitar chords instead of the usual piano.
The exchange of fours allowed Marshall to demonstrate his ability to play in any pattern his heart desires. Marshall has always been a favorite of mine, and it doesn’t matter whom he plays with. It still thrills me to hear his intricate drumming, his exclamations at the end of phrases, his attention to the moods of the people he plays with, and the melodies he produces with instruments that are, when played by others, just noise and pounding. This evening, his drums were amplified, so he was not in the background. You could hear every flick and twist of his brushes and sticks.
Ian Dogole sat in with his udu, an African clay pot that has a subtle, rich, but hollow sound which resonated through the room. The horns played softly and subtly to match the quality of the udu. Next came a duet between the udu and drums. It was beautifully done, and Marshall played the melody above the udu and the repeated bass line. How refreshing and very moving.