Arts Biographic: Dmitri Matheny
December 12, 1995
By Dave Becker

Dmitri Matheny, the 29-year-old flugelhorn player, recently released his debut album, Red Reflections. It's an intriguing blend of old and new, with Matheny’s obvious respect for jazz tradition mixing with funkier elements.

On one end of the Bay Area jazz spectrum are the older, traditional players offering tightly wound renditions of be-bop and post-bop standards. On the other end are the brash young “acid jazz” players mixing jazz tradition, hip-hop rhythms and rock ‘n roll attitude in the hottest South of Market clubs.

And somewhere in the middle is Dmitri Matheny. While Miles Davis and Art Farmer still rank as the top influences on the 29-year-old flugelhorn player, he’s still hip enough to work with some of the hottest young cats from South of Market. Matheny’s recently released debut album, Red Reflections (Monarch Records), is an intriguing blend of old and new, with Matheny’s obvious respect for modal jazz tradition mixing with funkier elements laid down by regular bandmates such as saxophonist Dave Ellis and drummer Scott Amendola, both moonlighting from the Charlie Hunter Trio. Both will join Matheny today in a record-release party at the Plush Room, 940 Sutter Street, San Francisco.

“I remember feeling kind of ambivalent about that whole 'new jazz' scene when it first started to happen,” says Matheny. “I really like music with more complex harmonies, and the hip-hop beats don’t interest me that much.

“But as I started to get around, I realized there are some great musicians in that scene. Dave Ellis, for my money, is one of the best saxophonists around.

“So as I’ve worked with more musicians from that scene, those influences creep in, which I really like. People who come out to one of my shows will hear a real mixture. They’ll hear elements of the new thing, they’ll hear some Miles, they’ll hear Chopin influences.”

Born in Nashville and raised in Tucson, Arizona, Matheny fell in love with the trumpet via the Miles Davis records his father used to listen to. He got his first horn at the age of 9 and was soon playing rings around his schoolmates. A high school apprenticeship at the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan was followed by a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music where he studied alongside soon-to-be stars such as Antonio Hart, Roy Hargrove and Danilo Perez.

Matheny fell in love with the Bay Area during a supporting gig at the 1989 Monterey Jazz Festival and moved to San Francisco soon after. Along with winning numerous commissions as a composer, Matheny’s SOMA Ensemble quickly established itself as one of the most potent forces on the city’s contemporary jazz scene.

How big an influence was Miles at first?

That’s why I started playing, to sound like Miles. I remember being really frustrated when I actually got the trumpet and found out it didn’t sound like Miles. I did all kinds of horrible things to the horn to try and get a sound like his. I’d stuff an old sock into it, scratch all the finish off with a Brillo pad.

Why did you switch from trumpet to flugelhorn?

The first person I heard who was playing the flugelhorn exclusively was Art Farmer, and I realized that was much more the sound I aspired to -- warmer, more lyrical, and more like a human voice.

Actually, the music I listen to for inspiration is mostly vocalists. Abbey Lincoln is my favorite. She has this style that’s so sincere. She’s not hiding anything. That immediacy is something we horn players really respect, and something we strive to achieve on our instruments.

How would you describe your style?

The way I approach the instrument is very much in the straight-ahead jazz tradition of Miles Davis, Chet Baker and Art Farmer. But the way I write is more visual, like film music, to achieve a particular mood. With this album, we're really trying to create images in the mind of the listener. So I'd say the style in which I play is familiar, but the music is pretty unique.

What were your early gigs like?

In Boston I led my own jazz sextet, worked as a sideman with a big band, and occasionally freelanced with a salsa group. I also had the chance to back a few Motown and pop acts. That kind of piecemeal work is how most horn players pay the rent. Those gigs were valuable learning experiences for me. They helped me learn how to work with people and how to develop a professional attitude.

Was it tough to make a name for yourself in San Francisco?

When I first came to town, I just wanted to meet as many musicians as I could and immerse myself. I played every place you could name. Once I found the musicians I really wanted to work with, I stopped doing all the little clubs and began to focus on writing repertoire and booking concert dates for the SOMA Ensemble.

You write most of the material you perform. Is it harder to improvise on a tune when it’s something you wrote?

I don’t want to sound pretentious, but I try to take a "zen" approach. I put my heart and soul into a piece of music as I'm composing it, but once we get on the bandstand, I want everyone, including me, to feel free to change it.

That’s one of the things that’s so great about Dave Ellis. He changes things up spontaneously on the bandstand, and the end result is stronger than what I wrote and closer to what I intended.

You’ve done a lot of work with the San Francisco Symphony’s “Adventures in Music” program. (Tonight’s show is a benefit for the program.) What’s that about?

The music programs in San Francisco schools have really been slashed to the bone. Fortunately, the San Francisco Symphony stepped in with this wonderful program in which they send professional musicians to every school in the district. We‘re proud to be part of that lineup. We perform at school assemblies three to four mornings every week. By April, when we finish the season, we will have performed in 84 different schools this year.