Interview: David K. Mathews on touring with Carlos Santana, Etta James and his new album

Since the ‘70s, David K. Mathews has performed side-by-side with some of music’s most iconic legends. He’s a master of the piano, electric piano, Hammond organ, Clavinet and synthesizers. His skillful style landed him a gig with music pioneers Tower of Power in the early ‘80s, followed by a 20-year stint with the incomparable Etta James. He currently tours with one of the greatest guitar players in the world – Carlos Santana

The diverse list of artists Mathews has either shared a stage or a studio with ranges from Herbie Hancock, Tito Puente and Gregg Allman, to Nas, Pitbull and Bonnie Raitt. Feb. 2, marks the debut of his new album The Fantasy Vocal Sessions Vol. 1, which spotlights a list of accomplished musicians who have all played an important part of Mathews’ journey.

The collection features singers such as rock legend Steve Miller, Maria Muldaur (‘Midnight At The Oasis’) and Santana vocalist Tony Lindsay. Others on the album include: Amikaeyla, Kenny Washington, saxophonist Wayne de Silva, drummer Akira Tana, bassist Peter Barshay as well as guitarists Jim Nichols and Carl Lockett.

In a recent interview with AXS, Mathews shared some of his special moments in music and what we can expect from his latest work.

AXS: You had a tremendous tour run with Etta James. Did you have a favorite song you played with her?

David K. Mathews: Well, of course, playing the people’s favorite ‘At Last’ every night was always a thrill, but I’d have to say that my personal favorite was “Sugar On The Floor.” It is actually a song by Kiki Dee. It’s a ballad, and Etta related to the lyrics so intensely that she’d do these incredible vamps on the out chorus that would take us to so many emotional places. She’d take us all to church, and she would preach.

AXS: What was the most valuable lesson Ms. James taught you?

DM: Pure honesty of expression through music. Let your guts hang out, don’t hold back, tell the truth. If you’ve got to scream, or cry, or whisper, or smile. She was a great storyteller. She was like a Griot.

AXS: Before getting the call to tour with Carlos Santana, how big of a fan were you? What was that moment like for you?

DM: I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and was hearing Santana on the radio from about the sixth grade on, so I’ve always been a fan. Over the years, I’d met and played with many different members of various incarnations of the band. Also, before I joined the band in 2010, I’d known and had worked for many years with six out of the 11 players in the current lineup at that time, and they were my friends and colleagues. In the back of my mind it had always been a dream for me, and I’d always felt that it would be a good fit. So, when I got the call I was surprised and excited, but not particularly nervous. It just felt right.

AXS: Tell me a little bit of what life is like on the road with Santana.

DM: We keep pretty busy. Carlos listens to music constantly so we are always learning and trying out new things; daily actually. We'll run a couple of tunes at soundcheck and play them that night. The traveling conditions are great and we go to many interesting places worldwide.

AXS: You are mostly self-taught and you have quite an eclectic palette. What makes you gravitate toward one genre over another?

DM: Well, it used to depend on what was the predominant style of most of the gigs I was doing at that particular time. But I’ve always loved so many different kinds of music, how could one not? There’s so much out there in the world, it’s just endless. Of course, I have my favorites with jazz, in all of its myriad forms, being at the top of the list.

AXS: Tell me all about your new album. What made you put this together now?

DM: Since 2007, it had been a dream of mine to make a series of albums with some of the great singers that I’d gotten to know and work with over the last 40 years. Etta James was the inspiration, and she was to be the first one that I’d hoped to record for my project. Sadly, at that time, her health was starting to decline and we were never able to make that happen. The album is the first on Effendi Records. Volume 1 is a collection of standards from the great American songbook, performed in a typical small group jazz setting. Subsequent releases will reflect my eclectic musical tastes, and will contain a variety of my favorite genres, with some of the same singers from Volume 1 but also many other surprises.

AXS: Tell me a little bit about the recording process with this album.

DM: The songs on this album were recorded in one or two takes, in two days at the famous Fantasy Studios in Berkeley. The singers featured on this album have all been an important part of my musical life throughout the years, from 1979 to the present. I asked each singer to give me a list of two or three medium tempo swingers, and two or three ballads. I made a couple of suggestions about a couple of tunes that I particularly liked to some of the singers, but for the most part I went with what they suggested. Any arrangements were off-the-cuff and made on the spot in the studio; very much an old school ‘jazz album’ as far as the process went. No rehearsal. The album is my first album as a leader in 15 years. Subsequent volumes in the vocal series will explore pop, rock, soul and R&B, funk, blues, Afro Cuban & Brazilian music - all of the myriad influences one heard on the radio growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area of the ‘60s.

AXS: How would you describe the vibe of the album?

DM: Relaxed, yet very passionate. Mostly ballads you know, so maybe it's a little slow for some folks, but there are a lot of emotions there if someone really takes the time to listen to the great performances and to the stories within lyrics.

AXS: What is one thing you really want people to know about it?

DM: It’s real music; real playing, real feeling, real life. The oldest singer is 91, the youngest is maybe 45. All pros, with a whole lifetime of experiences that can be heard in their performances.

For a chance to see Mathews and Santana on tour click here. You can expect The Fantasy Vocal Sessions Vol. 2 sometime in the near future.