Matheny Left Traditional Route Behind
By Andrew Gilbert
March 24, 2000

Dmitri Matheny isn't the first jazz musician to run his career as if it were an independent arts organization, but few can match his entrepreneurial spirit.

The flugelhornist's wide-open creative streak as a composer, arranger, improviser and accompanist is on view this week during his "home season," a concept he's borrowed from dance companies and effectively used to turn his hometown gigs into high-profile events.

The season opens tonight at Old First Concerts with a tribute to his mentor Art Farmer and includes "Equinox II: Music of the Cosmos" on Sunday at Morrison Planetarium, and a benefit concert, "Diva Night: International Sirens of Song," on Monday at Yoshi's, featuring Russian pianist Amina Figarova, Brazilian-born vocalist Claudia Villela and the American-born singer Kim Nalley.

"I steal from everybody," Matheny said during an interview at his Berkeley Hills home. "If I see something that somebody is doing that works, I steal it.

"There are a lot of things we do in jazz that don't make sense. For example, the one-nighter is not a smart business model for clubs or musicians. Look at dance companies — dance has a small, dedicated following, just like jazz. There aren't many venues where they can perform and they're all based somewhere, but they have to travel, which is expensive. In spite of being virtually ignored by the popular culture, many dance companies are thriving. I figured they must be doing something right.

"One of the things they do is divide their year between a home season and a touring season. In their home market they'll do a series of new works and collaborations, then use these performances as a springboard as they go out on the road."

Matheny opens his home season with the concert that flows most intimately from his own experience, premiering "The Angels Sing: Remembering Art Farmer," an hour-long suite that incorporates classical influences, tango, bebop and African percussion. The piece is written for the Del Sol String Quartet and a jazz group featuring Matheny, bassist Ruth Davies, Ian Dogole on clay pot, Figarova and her husband Bart Platteau, who are based in the Netherlands and will perform with Matheny throughout the home season as artists-in-residence (another ambitious concept he's adopted).

With his beautiful, luminous tone and penchant for clean, deceptively simple lines, Matheny made good use of the time he spent studying with Farmer, who died at the age of 71 after three decades living in Austria. Long before he met the trumpeter, Matheny had become enamored with Farmer's sound and approach, collecting several hundred of his recordings. While studying at the Berklee College of Music in the '80s, Matheny started sending Farmer tapes and letters in Vienna.

He ended up meeting Farmer through a mutual friend when the trumpeter was performing at the Village Vanguard. When Farmer realized that Matheny was the young musician who had been importuning him by mail, he agreed to set up a lesson the next day. Matheny studied with Farmer regularly while living in Boston, and when he moved to the Bay Area in 1989, they kept up their relationship, though the formal lessons had ended.

"Everything Art improvises sounds like he sat down and painstakingly composed it," Matheny said. "And there's also this gorgeous warm tone. I found it really compelling, this combination of a sound that's so warm and lyrical — no one has ever gotten a flugel sound like that — and the laser focus of his ideas. And he talked the same way that he played. I used to think of him like a Zen master, the way he would cut through everything with such clarity. He was more important to my development than anything I learned in school."

The value of his relationship with Farmer becomes clear when one sees Matheny's devotion to musical education. Monday night's concert at Yoshi's is the fifth annual fundraiser he's helped stage for the Young Musicians Program of UC Berkeley, a program that boasts alumni such as tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Benny Green and keyboardist Rodney Franklin.

For more than 30 years, YMP has offered talented low-income students between the ages of 11 and 17 a conservatory-quality education. A seven-week summer program, YMP gives ambitious young musicians the training to get into some of the country's best conservatories and universities. Matheny participated in the first two YMP fund-raisers, performing with saxophonists Dave Ellis and Craig Handy, and then started producing the events himself.

This year the concert features Matheny's jazz orchestra and three distinct musicians in Nalley (best known for her work with the Johnny Nocturne Band), Villela and Figarova. Making her West Coast debut, Figarova is the least-known artist on the program. A Russian-born concert pianist, she was in the midst of a successful concert career when she discovered jazz. Matheny met her while he was teaching at a jazz institute in Aspen, and performed with her in Holland last year.

How is Matheny approaching writing material for such divergent talents?

"Very carefully," he said. "For Claudia Villela, it's particularly tricky because a lot of Brazilian music hinges on instruments that we don't have in the big band. I'm trying to stay true to what she does, however. Kim is easier: I'm writing an arrangement of 'Don't Mean a Thing,' on which she'll just burn."


Here are the concerts slated for Dmitri Matheny's Home Season:

The Angels Sing: Remembering Art Farmer
8 pm tonight
Old First Church, 1751 Sacramento Street, SF
$9, 510-601-8932

Equinox III: Music of the Cosmos
7 pm Sunday
Morrison Planetarium, Academy of Sciences, Golden Gate Park, SF
$12, 415-750-7145

Diva Night: International Sirens of Song
8 pm Monday
Yoshi's at Jack London Square, 510 Embarcadero West, Oakland
$18, 510-238-9200