Interview with Dmitri Matheny
November 1, 1999
By Lauren Craft

Dmitri Matheny was virtually unknown when his first album was released five years ago, but in a matter of weeks he was topping the jazz radio charts and selling out concert halls from New York to Warsaw. After years performing in small nightclubs, he had become the classic overnight success.

But there was really nothing overnight about Matheny. He had already paid his dues at Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music, studied privately with flugelhorn legend Art Farmer, and worked steadily on both coasts for nearly a decade.

Five CDs later, Dmitri Matheny is collecting awards and accolades at an alarming rate. JAZZIZ magazine has rated him "Best New Artist," while the San Jose Mercury News has dubbed him "the first breakthrough flugelhornist since Chuck Mangione."

The torch has been passed, but Matheny is not resting on his laurels. His 2000 Tour included concerts in Japan, Europe and the United States. We caught up with Dmitri in San Francisco at the conclusion of his travels.
Dmitri, the readers of JAZZIZ voted you "Best New Artist" along with Brad Mehldau, Ravi Coltrane and Stefon Harris. Are you flattered by all the recent attention?

That was a great honor, but Brad Mehldau is in a class by himself. He's on par with the Great Ones. When he performs, Mehldau seems to be channeling pure music, straight from the source.

We've also seen a lot of you recently on television, as a guest VJ on BET. 

Our society is so visually-oriented. I'll give you an example: when my CD STARLIGHT CAFÉ was being played on 300 radio stations, it made a small splash. But when they put it on the United Airlines in-flight video, we were flooded with e-mails. The power of the visual, I guess! Really, we're grateful for anything that helps us get our music out there.

Why do you think people respond so well to your music? 

I think it's because of the importance we place on melody. My favorite composers—Brahms, Jobim, Ellington, Stevie Wonder—they all emphasize melody. Melody is where the romance lives. There's a profound absence of melody in a lot of contemporary music. We're bringing back melodies, and people dig that.

You just finished a big tour. What stands out? 

This year's tour was extra special because of my new horn. It belonged to my teacher, Art Farmer, who died last year. Knowing Art played this instrument, feeling his spirit, I'm inspired to work harder than ever, trying to live up to his standard of performance every night.

You and Art had a special relationship. 

We did. He was my mentor for ten years. I just played at his memorial service in New York. Everyone was there: Tommy Flanagan, Rufus Reid, Jim Hall. All of us who play the Big Horn owe a great debt to Art. He defined the sound of the flugelhorn in jazz. He really set the standard. And, he was a beautiful human being.

Why have you chosen to make your home in San Francisco and not New York? 

Well, you know, Art lived mainly in Vienna. He taught me that you spend most of your life on the road, living out of a suitcase. He asked me, "Where do you want to be when you go home?" I chose the San Francisco Bay Area. Tony Bennett calls it "America's Paris." It's one of the world's great cities, aesthetically beautiful and culturally precious. We have great food and wine, one of the best jazz clubs in the world, two strong jazz festivals, a great symphony, museums, and of course, the glorious California coast.

You are also known for working with women musicians...uncommon in jazz. 

Not as uncommon as you might think. The media loves to focus on the women, as if they're some kind of novelty, but these women are simply outstanding musicians. People think I hired Ruth Davies, for example, because of the way she looks when she plays the bass. Look, she's toured and recorded with Charles Brown, John Lee Hooker, Van Morrison and Bonnie Raitt! Here's another example: the two hardest working musicians on the circuit right now, in my opinion, are both women: Regina Carter and Diana Krall. Everywhere I travel, they've either just been there or will be there next week! And Ingrid Jensen, who was at Berklee when Roy Hargrove and I were there, well, I think she's just about the most exciting trumpet player of our generation. I could go on and on: Dena DeRose, Virginia Mayhew, Mimi Fox, Amina Figarova...

Tell us about Amina. You just released a CD with her on the Munich label. 

Yeah, I'm thrilled with this project. Munich is one of the top recording companies in Europe, and Amina is a wonderful pianist and composer. She's a hit at jazz festivals everywhere, from Brazil to North Sea, and people here in the U.S. are just starting to discover her. Wherever we perform audiences adore her. Our new CD, "Live in Europe," features compositions from both of us, and a great international band.

You seem to be spending a lot of time overseas. I went to your show last night, and you played new pieces you wrote in France, Tuscany, Japan, and the West Indies. 

This is an idea I borrowed from one of my heroes, Dave Brubeck. When he traveled to the East, he brought back "Jazz Impressions of India" for his American audience. I'm not much of a photographer, so I love that idea: musical snapshots, musical postcards from the road.

You and Darrell Grant also just completed a big tour together as a duo. 

Grant & Matheny, my favorite project. Darrell is the Man on piano. We started in the West: California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. In January we'll go to New York. We're playing a diverse repertoire we call "chamber jazz," including spirituals, show tunes, folk songs, and classical. The California Arts Council has given us some tour support, so we're able to refine our sound on the road. Everyone is asking us to record.

Let's talk about the saxophone. In the past year, you've performed with a lot of great sax men: Red Holloway, Dave Ellis, Bobby Watson, and James Moody. You also did clinics with Don Braden and Stanley Turrentine. What is it about saxophonists that appeals to you so? 

I love the sound, the tone of the saxophone. I try to play like a sax player or a singer, to get that wonderful, warm, vocal quality. And I'm inspired by the cats who do it right, like the people you mentioned.

In a recent article, jazz critic Andrew Gilbert says "Matheny has built his career as if he were an independent arts institution." What do you think he means by that? 

I think Andy's talking about the great people I work with. The musicians in my band are first rate, and we work with a talented team of about a dozen professionals who handle tour promotion, publicity, the web site, music publishing and licensing, bookkeeping, graphic design, concert production, and administrative work, so we can focus on the music. We try to concentrate our tours around specific projects, like the release of each new CD. We don't perform a lot locally. Instead, we present two annual concert series: a Home Season in March, and WinterFest family shows each December. The rest of the year, we focus on education and community programs.

Why the big emphasis on education? 

Well, my father was an educator, and my own early development was nurtured in jazz camps, at Interlochen and Berklee, and by teachers like Carmine Caruso, Herb Pomeroy and Art Farmer. Now that I'm having some success of my own, it's my turn to give back. For the past few years I've been giving workshops at the Monk Institute in Aspen, The Jazzschool in Berkeley, the Stanford Jazz Workshop, and at various high schools and colleges. Let me tell you, today's young players are sounding better than ever.

Even your fan club raises funds for music education. 

I prefer to call them a "Patrons Group." For several years we've been doing benefit concerts for organizations like the Timothy Hall Foundation and UC Berkeley's Young Musicians Program. Our patrons, the Friends of Matheny Music, make tax-deductible contributions which support these shows as well as our free programs for children in the schools. Whether the kids are aspiring musicians or just learning to appreciate music, their lives are enhanced. And it makes us feel great!