When Dmitri Matheny gets going, his passion for the scores of stories in the music of his youth is infectious, almost palpable in the cool, neon air of yet another pit stop on a West Coast tour for his Feb. 20 soundtrack, Jazz Noir.
This past Friday night, Matheny just happened to be in North Bend, Wash., home of David Lynch’s creepy hit TV show from the ‘90s, Twin Peaks. He played two sets at North Bend’s only jazz club, Boxley’s, with his group for the night. They are three of the best, most in-demand Seattle musicians around: multiple Earshot Golden Ear-winning pianist Bill Anschell, bassist Chris Symer, and drummer Mark Ivester.
The Dmitri Matheny Group is made up of “a cast of thousands,” Ivester said during a break. Matheny likes to use different guys wherever he goes, and his set list features “great variety, which I like,” the drummer added.
Born in Nashville, raised in Georgia and Tucson, Ariz., Matheny traveled a great deal to get more from his music, attending Boston’s Berklee College of Music, and settling in New York for a spell as the receptive, grateful student of the great Art Farmer. Farmer made such an impression that Matheny never lets a gig or an interview go by without mentioning the late flugelhorn master, who taught him more than handling the instrument. Farmer taught Matheny to love the instrument, as a conduit for storytelling.
On Friday night, Matheny lovingly brought up Farmer’s tremendous influence, his catalogue, and work with pianist Tommy Flanagan on “Eclypso,” as he dropped in on Bill Anschell’s piano trio now and again.
Unlike a lot of jazz bandleaders on their own record tour, Matheny made the Boxley’s gig about everyone in his group, not just himself and his new cuts. He dipped into a few songs from Jazz Noir, his homage to film noir soundtracks and the subject of detective novels, “Film Noir” notably.
But for the most part, Matheny was content to drift in and out of the club. He would chat for a bit with a passing acquaintance who stopped by out in the entryway, then stand close to the small stage in the back, whooping it up to a schizophrenic outtake blossoming from pianist Anschell’s head-spinning layers.
Matheny enjoyed the show as a member of the audience as well as a part of the act. When he came onstage every other number, he’d pick up that bright, golden-copper bell and treat it right. Almost every song he chose lent itself to his innate, hopeless romanticism in and out of the Jazz Noir track list.
He could’ve stuck to Jazz Noir entirely. But what fun is that? When asked why he went off-script, Matheny answered, “It's a combo of what will work in the room (an effective set list) and the instrumentation (some of the tunes need sax).”
What the Matheny Group did play they played with ease. There seemed to be a loose thread holding the rhythm section together, from Anschell’s constantly evolving overlays on piano to Symer’s lofty jazz purity, drifting on clouds, to Ivester’s almost disco-like gentrification.
Ivester is a populace drummer, and a charming one that — able to command kingdom come — authentic Afro-Cuban tribal styles — or a simple wedding of pop favors. His inclination that night was to groove up the jams in even the most esoteric-feeling of jazz ballads. He was the guy bringing the party, while Anschell sat off in a corner engaging in deep conversation, telling fantastic tales, and Symer in the middle balancing the two separate worlds, just floating from one crowd to another with his dreamy, voluptuous jazz upright.
It went like this whether the group floated over Dexter Gordon’s “Cheese Cake,” Matheny’s original “Perfect Peaches,” or romantic selections from Jazz Noir.
A killer of a romantic Jazz Noir selection had to be “Film Noir,” which Matheny adjusted in the intro for North Bend. The adults in the audience got a funny feeling when the flugelhornist narrated the part about the femme fatale and the “sex-drunk chump” in a sweaty heap together, what with a couple of children running around the stage.
By far, however, it was the best indicator of the appeal of this new album of soundtracks, a humanizing force in the young boyish voice of Matheny himself, showing his fandom for all things film noir with his own version of that 1981 movie scorcher, Body Heat. The audience got a kick out of Matheny’s combined Spoken Word story of lust and a murder plot, with his flugelhornist stabs at swanky seduction.
They also played the late bassist Charlie Haden’s “Here’s Looking At You,” the title track from Elliott Gould’s 1973 film noir about Det. Philip Marlowe, “The Long Goodbye,” and of course, Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” for good measure.
When Matheny sat in on his own gig, he played his flugelhorn with a bare necessity, as if aching to reach the part where the dame dumped the detective, leaving him gasping for more. In the hopelessly romantic, “The Long Goodbye,” Matheny makes the notes tremble, a performance not dictated in any chart. By the end of it, his flugelhorn finishes the setting with a breathy sigh, almost as if he’s trying to kiss the dame goodbye himself.
Matheny’s not the kind of horn player given to flights of flash, although he did show flashes of a high-speed chase, maybe on the “Streets of San Francisco.” Instead, he devotes tender, loving care to each note, as if taking a step at a time up toward the rickety top floor of a tenement in Chicago to deal with a grifter.
He’s based in Centralia, Wash. now, which he said is about an hour and a half drive from his scheduled gigs in either the Seattle and Portland direction — a nice little bonus he’s taking full advantage of. He’s also really digging the rainy, moody Pacific Northwest, after living in Tucson’s brutally hot climate.
Perfect Jazz Noir weather.