Discovering Rick VanMatre and “Outside” Jazz
Due to physical and financial constraints, it isn’t often that I get the chance to hear any of the musicians I review in advance of getting their CDs, but this was one of those rare instances. Every month, except December and January when no concerts are given, I go forth to do battle with the weather (which this year seems to have been locked into a “global colding” pattern) to attend the Saturday afternoon “Jazz of the Month” concerts at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, a series made possible by the very generous funding of Jamey Aebersold. For those of you who don’t know him (and, sadly, there are many), Aebersold is kind of a local jazz legend, but a vibrant and very active legend who has himself played with his own quartets at these concerts. In addition to being an excellent bop alto saxist, Aebersold has dedicated the past 45 years of his life (and a good chunk of his own money) to the teaching, promotion, and proselytising of jazz. Independent of any university system, Aebersold has developed his own teaching methods using “play-a-long” books and records (now CDs) and giving away (yes, giving away) an outstanding booklet containing every chord position known to jazz, transcribed for both guitarists and keyboard players, as well as the cycle of fourths and other handy hints to make improvising easier. And part of this outreach has been to fund these monthly concerts at the Cincinnati Library, in one of which I heard VanMatre’s group.
Indeed, VanMatre himself has participated in some of Aebersold’s summer jazz clinics. As his website indicates, he is currently adjunct professor emeritus of jazz studies and saxophone at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM), and was formerly the conservatory’s director of jazz studies. I can’t say that I was astonished to learn this because I thought he might not be up to such challenges, but I was astonished that such a musician, whose own playing and compositions represent a form of “outside” jazz that is much further developed than late bop, could attain such a position in a city like Cincinnati, which is generally so jazz-conservative that a brilliant native son like the late George Russell is not only not honored (as he should be) but virtually unknown to locals unless they are rabid jazz buffs, while such fine but relatively conservative players within the bop tradition like the late Jimmy McGary were considered local legends. I mean no disrespect to McGary, who I heard several times in person and always enjoyed, but if one wishes to hear something a bit more experimental in jazz forms and improvisation locally, someone like Rick VanMatre shines like a beacon of light.
Following the concert, I was delighted to learn that I could review his recent CD for Fanfare, but absolutely stunned (in a good way!) that I would also be able to interview him. If the following questions-and-answers seem to the reader to reflect a bit of awe towards VanMatre’s talent, you are interpreting it correctly. I consider him to be one of the absolute finest jazz musicians I’ve had the pleasure to hear, and I’ve heard a bunch ranging in generational distance from Max Kaminsky to Miles Davis and from Duke Ellington to Toshiko Akiyoshi.
Q: How did you, yourself, first get interested in jazz, and who were some of your early heroes of the music?
A: I was lucky that my father had a large collection of jazz and classical records and he gently encouraged, but didn’t push me, to listen. Most of his “jazz” records might be better termed swing era big band and vocal standards, but some included the highest level of small group improvisation by artists like Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and Artie Shaw. It was an inevitable step from there for me to start buying my own records. I think the first ones were by Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Sonny Stitt, Art Farmer, and Freddie Hubbard.
Q: Was the saxophone your first instrument, or did you play a different one at first?
A: Because of my father’s love of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Pete Fountain, he bought me a clarinet when I was eight years old and got me started immediately with private lessons, even driving me himself quite a distance every Saturday to the teacher’s home. About five years later I took up the saxophone.
Q: How did you acquire your own jazz education? Was any of it formal, or did you just woodshed with others or study with a particular musician?
A: Those early lessons emphasized classical music, and by the way, speaking of classical music, I should credit my father with taking me to symphony concerts. I also remember him buying me a set of scores of all nine Beethoven symphonies at an early age. But even in the first few years of lessons, I played some melodies by ear from his swing and pop records, then years later, I began imitating parts of Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley, and John Coltrane solos. I also had a great jazz sax teacher and a particularly brilliant and artistic high school band director who taught me jazz theory and improvisation. I took formal jazz courses at Berklee and also completed a classical saxophone degree at the University of Cincinnati, then received a graduate degree in jazz and contemporary music at the Eastman School. I had wonderful teachers throughout all these college experiences but as with all jazz musicians, the personal woodshedding and ear development were the most important factors.
Q: In listening to your compositions as well as your improvisations, I think I hear some influence of Sonny Rollins, a little Eric Dolphy, perhaps a bit of Randy Brecker, but I’m just an outsider trying to peer inside your mental workshop. Who would you say were your strongest influences as both a player and as a writer?
A: In addition to the artists I’ve already mentioned that first affected me, I then went through phases of being heavily influenced by different players—probably a couple of dozen, but ones that stand out are Dave Liebman, Joe Henderson, and Michael Brecker (and you noticed his brother Randy, too). The seminal composers like Ellington, Strayhorn, Monk, Mingus, Shorter, Hancock, and Russell are of course burned into my psyche. I’ve been lucky to get to play with, and also conduct the music of, brilliant writers like Kenny Wheeler, Kenny Werner, Jim McNeely, and Maria Schneider, and that has had a profound impact on me. Because of my classical background, there are many classical and “hybrid” artists, both players and writers, from Glenn Gould to Keith Jarrett to Penderecki, who have influenced me.
Q: Were there any “outside” players who influenced or attracted you…perhaps Pharoah Sanders, Don Cherry, David Murray?
A: Like most modern improvisers, I owe a debt to all three, and especially to Ornette Coleman.
Q: Now, let’s go backwards in style a bit. Were there any musicians of earlier generations whose playing impressed you when growing up?
A: One of the most powerful artists in the history of the saxophone is Johnny Hodges. No matter how contemporary your harmony, rhythm, or tone quality evolve, if you can retain the essence of Hodges’s emotional core, that may be more important than any other facet of your playing.
Q: I think the best definition of how outsiders think of jazz musicians came from Pee Wee Russell. When he first heard jazz, he just couldn’t imagine how the player “knew where he was going.” Within the kind of solos you play, which are extremely complex and seem to veer off into nooks and crannies along the way, what exactly do you use as “signposts”? Are they just the changes, or are you thinking in a linear fashion—what George Russell termed the “supra-vertical?”
A: That’s a fabulous question and like most aspects of jazz, and all forms of art, it is hard to put in words. (If you could put it into words, it wouldn’t be art!) I think I do have signposts as you say, and I also conceive linearly, vertically, and in many other ways. I like to tell my students that after you have been improvising or composing for a while, the different ways of thinking start to merge. It becomes more like quantum physics—is it a particle or a wave?—it’s both at the same time.
Q: Let’s talk a little about how you rose through the ranks, so to speak. How did you arrive from being another saxist and group leader to becoming director of jazz studies and professor of saxophone at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory, and now adjunct professor emeritus? Those are pretty prestigious positions to attain.
A: Well, thanks. I feel fortunate to have worked in college jazz education, not so much because of the “prestige” as the opportunity to collaborate with the tremendous faculty and students at CCM. I include students when I say “collaborate” because sometimes it feels like I am teaching them, but more often it feels like I am working with students as equal partners on a lifelong creating and learning journey. I started teaching at the college level and became department head at an early age thinking that I might leave or reduce my responsibilities after a short while and devote my time to playing. But I loved the interaction with students and faculty so much that I just kept both the performing and teaching careers going. Now that I have relinquished the department chair responsibilities and am only teaching part time, I have much more time to try new projects like this latest group.
Q: Is it your “regular” working group, what you might call a “steady band”?
A: I play with many different musicians, but this is my main focus for my own music right now. The way the jazz world has evolved in the last decades, the luxury of a “steady” band applies to very few jazz artists, even the most famous. But I feel that the rapport our group has, while no substitute for 200 gigs a year, makes every performance feel like home base.
Q: How did you become involved with Jamey Aebersold and his “Jazz of the Month” concert series at the Cincinnati Library?
A: In addition to being the most important figure in the history of jazz education, Jamey is one of the most generous philanthropists. He financially supports not only music education and performance, but also initiatives to fight drugs and smoking. It’s great that through his help, the Cincinnati Public Library offers this series. But Jamey lets the library choose the musicians that perform and it’s nice that our group was asked to play in this setting which offers an alternative to jazz clubs and formal concert halls.
Q: I’ve long been impressed by vibist Rusty Burge, who I’ve heard in other contexts locally, but I was really blown away by Kim Pensyl on piano, whose playing sounded a little at times like Monk (no easy feat!), and also by your drummer, Tom Buckley, whose playing is far from busy yet who seems to say so much with just a few deft strokes. How did you run across them?
A: Rusty and Kim are faculty members at CCM and I have performed and recorded with them in many contexts. Kim is amazing on both trumpet and piano but I had mostly worked with him on trumpet. In looking for a different sound, I asked Kim if he would play piano in this new ensemble, and I had a sixth sense that some magic might ensue. Tom is a recent graduate of the CCM program and I grabbed him before he became too famous for me! I think you’re right that he paradoxically finds ways to be “complete” without saying, “hey, listen to me.”
Q: Of course, one of the joys of seeing a jazz band “live” is the extra adrenalin that always seems to make the playing even more vibrant than on records, but in several of the tracks on your new CD I felt that some of that “live” feeling was captured pretty well. How do you, or your musicians, get yourselves “up” in a studio?
A: When recording, I’ve always felt that, while it is tricky, I would take many (not all) of the same risks I do when playing live. When you fail, you fail big time, but when it works, it’s worth it.
Q: I’m curious to know how you go about composing pieces. So many of your compositions are really quite complex, often changing not only key and meter but often mood as well. How do you go about writing music? Do you have, so to speak, a continuous inspiration, or do these pieces come to you in different spurts?
A: I guess I am more of a “spurt” composer. I wish I could have continuous inspiration as well as a daily work ethic of composing. I know the composition “text books” recommend sitting your butt down to write every day no matter what. But my ideas seem to come more sporadically, fuelled by circumstances. Something I always try to do is find at least one “surprise” in each tune, whether harmonically, melodically, or rhythmically.
Q: How did you select the pieces for this current CD? Were they just chosen because they’re part of your recent repertoire, or were there other considerations that went into the programming?
A: Most of the tunes are pretty recent but one of them, Ashes, was written many years ago. However, it might as well have been written recently because it is completely new every time we do it. Other than having a primary and secondary theme and some dense polychord foundations, it is freely improvised by all five of us. It also is a tune that could just as easily belong on an avant-garde classical recording.
Q: Are there any current or future projects you’re involved with that you’d like to tell us about?
A: I just premiered a concerto for saxophone and symphony orchestra by the fantastic composer Frank Proto with whom many of the classical music aficionados that read
are probably familiar. Frank has written for artists as diverse as Francois Rabbath, Richard Stoltzman, Eddie Daniels, and Doc Severinsen, and is one of the few composers that can successfully combine jazz and classical elements. He had me playing everything from extremely delicate lyrical lines to fast classical technique to atonal cathartic screams to Latin jazz changes. I also recently performed another multi-style concerto with five orchestras, including the New York Repertory Orchestra and Sichuan Symphony Orchestra (China), this one by the brilliant composer Michael Patterson. I enjoy blurring the lines between genres, so I hope to do more orchestra performances like this in the future.
Gray Then Blue. Lines Above.
Solstice of Another Age. Ashes.
I Had You in Mind.
Coming Back to Yesterday
Rick VanMatre (s-sax, t-sax, fl); Kim Pensyl (pn);
Rusty Burge (vib);
Carmon DeLeone (perc); Tom Buckley (dr)
SUMMIT 608 (78:25)
This is one of those exceptionally rare instances where I heard the musicians I am reviewing on a CD prior to hearing the disc. Rick VanMatre, whose talent simply blew me away, played a 90-minute set at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County on May 18, part of the “Jazz of the Month” series sponsored over the past several years by the locally legendary alto saxist and jazz educator Jamey Aebersold. As VanMatre’s website indicates, he is currently adjunct professor emeritus of jazz studies and saxophone at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, and was formerly the conservatory’s director of jazz studies. Yet, as in the case of virtually any performing musician, the proof is in the playing, and as this CD amply shows, VanMatre is simply an outstanding and awe-inspiring improviser and jazz composer. His band and personal style are of the kind that harks back to the 1960s and ’70s, when acoustic jazz was pushing the boundaries and such players as George Russell, Bill Evans, Charles Mingus, and Keith Jarrett flourished.
If the opening number,
Gray Then Blue
, sounds a bit relaxed and comforting, VanMatre shows his more explorative and exciting side in
, the piece with which he opened his live concert (though played, as he put it, “entirely differently”). This very Monk-ish piece seems to have a normal jazz beat but it doesn’t; rather, it continually shifts and varies the meter, pulling the rug out from under his listeners even as his own tenor sax playing swings throughout. Moreover, pianist Pensyl feeds him nice, chunky, Monk-ish chords, and vibist Rusty Burge falls into a nice groove as the music temporarily swings in a more conventional 4/4. But not for long, as pianist Pensyl provides a sparse, single-note solo that again pushes the meter before VanMatre returns to wrap things up.
is a delicate, free-tempoed piece based on a painting by VanMatre’s wife, Anna, titled
DeNatural Disaster 6,
which depicts the power of a storm at sea. Here, VanMatre’s soprano sax floats above the mixture of Pensyl’s piano and Tom Buckley’s drums. And I would like to mention to non-Cincinnatians that the extra percussion on this track is played by the multitalented Carmon DeLeone, hornist and ballet conductor extraordinaire, whose outstanding musicianship has graced the Queen City since at least the 1970s when he first burst upon the scene. In addition to being principal conductor of the Cincinnati Ballet company for many years, he has also conducted the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra.
, which VanMatre also played in the library concert, is dedicated not to Ray Charles but to Man Ray, specifically his two-minute 1921 experimental film and 1923 painting, both titled
Le Retour à la Raison
which, as VanMatre put it, contain a lot of spirals. The music, too, spirals in different directions, again blurring the meter for the casual toe-tapper. Here, Pensyl’s solo more closely resembles McCoy Tyner or Jarrett than Monk, but is equally excellent. VanMatre’s tenor solo is simply wonderful, pushing the envelope in a way that sounds partly influenced by Sonny Rollins and Eric Dolphy. Building on his solo, Burge’s solo, too, is explorative and imaginative. Here, too, Buckley gives us a solo in which he breaks up the rhythm even further, eventually using cross-currents that almost resemble free jazz before VanMatre re-enters with Burge and Pensyl to close things out.
VanMatre takes an entirely different tack (or track) on
Solstice of Another Age
, playing the opening on wooden flute before switching to soprano sax. This piece had a 6/4 feel to it, but with a syncopated figure on the second beat, with beats 4-6 following after a “silent” third beat. Yet this changes once again into a different pattern once VanMatre’s solo moves into double-time improvisation, while the chord pattern remains modal and relatively static. Here, too, bassist Aaron Jacobs, who works so beautifully and unobtrusively in most of these tracks (much like the way Scott LaFaro worked underneath Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard in the early 1960s), provides some absolutely beautiful underpinning to Pensyl’s solo, while Buckley again creates subtle yet colorful cross-rhythms. When he finally comes back in, VanMatre works in conjunction with the entire rhythm section to build slowly but surely to a polyrhythmic climax before easing the tension for a quiet finish.
The next two numbers,
I Had You in Mind
Coming Back to Yesterday
, were composed by Pensyl and reveal his own originality. The former piece has a sort of loping but asymmetrical Latin-type rhythm, while the latter is extremely open rhythmically, beginning with a free section before settling into a succession of passages utilizing augmented fourths (or flatted fifths, whichever you prefer) as a sort of grand introduction to an up-tempo, free blowing section that begins with an exceptionally imaginative vibe solo by Burge. The tempo then drops into a wonderful medium tempo (a type that seems to be rarer and rarer in modern jazz) for Pensyl’s own free-form solo, beginning single note but moving into rich chords prior to VanMatre’s re-entrance. The saxist moves around, eventually climbing the ladder on rising arpeggios and quirky figures before the rhythm section re-enters behind him. The rollicking medium tempo returns, pulling VanMatre into its vortex as Pensyl plays out-of-chord figures before another interlude leads us into a nicely relaxed ride-out.
The album ends with another VanMatre original,
, described by him as “a wailing lament over dense polychords that gradually meld into a second theme of pensive disbelief shifting to enraged frenzy.” The inspiration of this piece is not clearly given, but since T. S. Eliot is mentioned in passing one might suggest this as a basis for the piece. It is, in any case, the most free-form and “out there” composition on the CD and a fitting conclusion to this outstanding set. There is an extended drum solo here by Buckley, over which VanMatre creates intense, wailing lines while Pensyl roils beneath them. A pause, and then Burge enters on vibes, almost subliminally, creating a subtle underpinning for the explorations of VanMatre.
This is, in short, an absolutely stunning album and an excellent example of the kind of superb jazz that is so often created in our cities and towns nowadays that often goes overlooked by the rest of the country. I urge you to pick this one up; you won’t be disappointed.
Lynn René Bayley