Forsaking Bebop Sound for Melody and Lyricism
March 29, 1998
By Andrew Gilbert

Dmitri Matheny is always looking for the perfect note.

A master of the flugelhorn, the slightly larger and warmer-sounding cousin of the trumpet, Matheny is a jazz musician who wears his heart on his sleeve. Inspired by the minimalist balladry of Art Farmer, Miles Davis and Chet Baker, he has developed a deceptively simple style that depends on the subtle inflection and weight with which he places his notes, stringing them together in crystalline, rhythmically assured phrases.

"Over the last 10 years, I've been gradually moving away from the Clifford Brown school of bebop virtuosity and toward melody and lyricism," Matheny says during an interview at his house in the Berkeley hills. "I'll play an improvised solo, and someone will say to me, 'You should stretch out more; you should play more choruses. You sound too reserved.' And that will be after a solo in which I've played too many notes! What I'm striving for is more melodies, more sincerity, more warmth and lyricism, the way a really good singer sings."

While it's often said that jazz singers use their voices like instruments, the influence often flows the other way. Sarah Vaughan played an important, though largely unacknowledged, role in the bebop movement, and Miles Davis is one of many players who described his debt to Billie Holiday. Matheny, 33, has found inspiration in the music of jazz chanteuse Abbey Lincoln, a gifted songwriter who has made some of her best recordings in the past decade, after turning 60.

Delivering a Lyric

"I love her phrasing, and I love the sincerity in her voice," Matheny says. "When you go to an Abbey Lincoln show, you feel she's talking to you. I also really like the singers of the swing era, especially Ella Fitzgerald's work with big bands, and some of the crooners, too. I even like some of the contemporary singers. I think Diana Krall's really onto something. She's all about hip arrangements and really delivering a lyric."

Matheny's third and latest album for the San Francisco-based Monarch label, Starlight Café, perfectly captures his ability to improvise fresh, singing melodic lines that generate their own momentum. Featuring his frequent collaborator, bass virtuoso Bill Douglass (best known for his work with Marian McPartland) and pianist Darrell Grant, Starlight Café is a trio session recorded live at the Jazzschool in Berkeley.

Matheny — who performs in San Jose on Wednesday and again April 11 — hadn't planned the concert as a recording session — tape was rolling only to broadcast the performance later on Bud Spangler's "Sunday Night Suites" show on KCSM — and the loose, spontaneous nature of the concert comes through clearly.

"Since I was thinking of it as our last gig prior to doing some recording, I didn't care about mistakes," Matheny says. "I entirely forgot Bud Spangler was there recording, and we had one of those gigs where everyone played beautifully. I felt really fearless, like I could play something blatantly wrong and Darrell and Bill would make it sound good."

While the CD opens with a gorgeous version of Hoagy Carmichael's classic "Stardust," most of the album features original tunes by Matheny and Grant, as well as a gem of a tune by vibraphonist Joe Locke, "Saturn's Child." For Matheny, who moved to the Bay Area about a decade ago, the album's cosmic themes are in keeping with his previous work, especially his ravishing 1997 Monarch album Penumbra: the Moon Sessions.

More interesting than his extraterrestrial sources of inspiration are the musicians he's assembled to create his sweeping aural vistas. Produced by jazz veteran Orrin Keepnews, Penumbra features Douglass, drummer Kenny Wollesen, tenor saxophonist Dave Ellis, guitarist John Heller and Rob Burger on accordion. For performances at the San Jose Museum of Art on Wednesday and the Garden City on April 11, Matheny plays with bassist Ruth Davies, drummer Jason Lewis and pianist Smith Dobson. Matheny also plays the Jazz Store in Carmel on April 10, and for that show Bill Bell will take over the piano chair.

"One of the things I've tried to do is have a color instrument on each recording that you don't expect, or a style that takes things into a different area," Matheny says. "On Starlight Café we did this tune 'Whisper Muse' that's based on a Gabriel Fauré piece, and it sounds almost like classical music. On Penumbra we have a tango with Rob Burger on accordion, and Douglass plays a traditional Chinese melody on Chinese flute called 'Autumn Moon.' It's not really world music; we're just bringing in another element."

Hybrid Instrument

Born in Nashville and raised in Tucson, Matheny began playing trumpet at age 9. Frustrated by his inability to recreate Miles Davis' sound on his horn, he eventually turned to the flugelhorn, an instrument pioneered in jazz by Davis and Clark Terry. While studying with Art Farmer, who alternated between trumpet and flugelhorn until he eventually settled on a hybrid instrument he calls a flumpet, Matheny made the unusual decision to dedicate himself exclusively to the flugelhorn.

"The flugelhorn is such a wonderful instrument in its own right, I think it's a shame that it's so often relegated to the status of a double that you only play on ballads," Matheny says. "I think the instrument deserves better than that."