Dmitri Matheny Starlight Cafe
CD Review by Thomas Conrad
December 1998

Dmitri Matheny, flugelhorn; Darrell Grant, Piano; Bill Douglass, bass


Monarch MR1018 (CD). 1998. Dmitri Matheny, prod.; Brian Walker, eng. TT: 59:08


Performance 4-1/2 stars (out of 5)


Sonics 4 1/2 stars (out of 5)


What good are record reviewers if you can’t count on them for the occasional hot tip? Stay with me. I’m about to deliver.

In jazz, “pretty” is almost never a compliment. Jazz should slap you awake or validate your soul stirrings or break your heart or take you to the promised land, or all of the above at once. “Pretty” doesn’t get you there. Starlight Cafe is therefore a rarity: a jazz recording that is extravagantly, un-ashamedly, irrestibly pretty, and that takes enough risks to qualify as jazz.


Never heard of Dmitri Matheny? Neither had I. With that name, you figure he’s from some place east of St. Petersburg. Turns out it’s Tucson. Like every jazz musician worthy of the name, Dmitri Matheny hears something all his own. For Starlight Cafe, he hears a gathering of nocturnes that find a rapt late-night moodspace and stay there. He plays evanescent songs that beautifully fit his intention, like “Stardust” and “Corcovado” and “When You Wish Upon a Star.” But even when he varies the tone with more extroverted originals like “Geneva,” he does not break the atmosphere. One reason is his instrumental sound: lambent, poignant with human breath, a spirit voice that compels attention even when it whispers. Another reason is his drummerless ensemble. Pianist Darrell Grant and bassist Bill Douglass are intense listeners who sometimes anticipate and instantly echo Matheny’s spontaneous ideas, and sometimes string counterlines in his path. The three are always weaving one fabric.

In jazz, the phrase “mood music,” like “pretty,” is almost always pejorative. But Starlight Cafe is mood music you can trust. Its reassuring affirmations are honest, earned, and unsentimental, and the spell it evokes is inseparable from its recorded sound. Only very special live recordings can fool you into thinking they were made in a studio, right up until the moment the applause breaks in. Starlight Cafe was recorded live at La Note Cafe in Berkeley, California by Brian Walker, and it provides the best of both worlds: the finely nuanced ensemble close-up usually achievable only in a studio, and the full-size ambient space of a real moment in time.

Dmitri Matheny. Starlight Cafe. Now you know.