Interview: Dmitri Matheny, Holly Pyle break jazz-pop barrier in debut NW tour
Matt Marn

What happens when a gifted singer and a sublime horn player get together onstage for a few choice shows in the Pacific Northwest? Magic.

The all-star Dmitri Matheny Group kicks off a tour at Christo’s in Salem, Ore. tonight at 7 p.m. featuring visiting Arizona vocalist, Holly Pyle. They’ll cover many different styles of music, from jazz and blues, to “bossa nova and beyond,” on several select dates in Oregon and Washington this month.

The tour ends on Mother’s Day for Jazz at the Library in Anacortes, Wash.

The former Arizonian, now Washington-based flugelhorn player and composer recently won over music lovers when he was voted “Instrumentalist of the Year” at the Seattle Earshot Jazz Golden Ear Awards. Mentored by the legendary trumpet and flugelhorn master, Art Farmer, Matheny’s been serenading crowds up and down the West Coast with his romantic, melancholy ode to Jazz Noir, his 2016 release.

Originally an opera major, Pyle’s stirred up her own growing audience in Arizona, with a multi-style repertoire that’s quite stunning. When she’s not holding down her own gigs, breezing through jazz, pop, R&B, and even acapella electronic looping, the fearless singer’s touring with a progressive-soul-pop band called House of Stairs.

Matheny and Pyle gave AXS a glimpse of the magic to come in this exclusive interview — taken earlier yesterday.

AXS: What a pair! A soulful jazz horn player — Earshot Jazz’s “NW Instrumentalist of the Year,” a crazy gifted, all-genres, anything-goes vocalist, and this tour. How’d you two meet up, and how’d this collaborative session happen?

Dmitri Matheny: Holly and I met a few years ago in Phoenix, where she’s making big waves (if you can make waves in the desert) as a sensational new artist on the scene.

I wrote this musical called “The SnowCat,” which features songs in a whole bunch of genres: funk, blues, jazz, tango, samba, calypso, R&B. When we brought the show from California to Arizona, we hired Holly as our featured vocalist. 

It’s not an easy thing to learn so much original music and deliver an authentic performance in so many different styles, but Holly seemed to do it effortlessly. 

Everybody was totally knocked out by how she brought those songs to life. Since then, we’ve sought out other opportunities to collaborate. 

It doesn’t seem to matter what you throw at Holly — she spins it into gold. 

Holly Pyle: Through a referral from a few Phoenix musicians, Dmitri took the risk of hiring me to sing in his children’s jazz musical, “The Snowcat.” I literally laughed out loud when I got the call, because I love cats, and jazz (I made my first friend at age seven by meowing at her, no joke): It was as if the part was made for me. The musical became a solid foundation for other collaborations, leading to this debut tour across the Pacific Northwest.

AXS: The tour kicks off tonight at Christo’s in Salem, Ore. Care to provide a coming attraction? Holly will sing with the Group, yes?

DM: You bet! Holly’s repertoire is terrific: lots of familiar jazz classics, plus fresh spins on hits by Sting, Burt Bacharach, Stevie Wonder. A real variety of material.

AXS: What was the first thing that came into your minds when each of you first saw the other onstage performing?

DM: I thought, “Who is this Old Soul, that looks so young yet sings like she’s been here before? How can she be this gifted yet carry no diva baggage? And why isn’t she on all my gigs?”

HP: Well, watching Dmitri play was my first time performing alongside a flugelhorn — the sound of the horn itself was a marvel to hear.  Then, hearing the way he composed and wove playfulness into both the music and his execution of the flugelhorn gave a fantastic first impression: This is a man who knows joy and keeps a young heart: This man shall be adopted as family immediately.

AXS: Dmitri, what do you most appreciate about Holly as a collaborative artist? And Holly, what do you like about Dmitri?

DM: I like the way Holly says “yes” to everything: this song, this tour, this life. 

She’s joyously fearless. Her husband Shea is cut from the same cloth — an adventurer. I admire people like that.

I think it’s the secret to why Holly’s so good at so many things. 

While other musicians strive to stay in their comfort zones, Holly wants to try something new.

HP: Dmitri is straight-up delightful. Sure, talent is great, which is clear immediately in his playing, but. The hang and vibe of the bandstand are so important: Being able to share a space with such a positive person who loves music makes all the difference — it’s enabling, inspiring, and makes the whole show a ton of fun. I am also stunned by his work ethic. His business savvy alone is a modern marvel: he does his homework and then some: I have mad respect for his determination and jovial professionalism.

AXS: Every collaboration involves group dynamics. How would you describe yours?

DM: I’m a hard-working dog, herding cattle. 

Then one day a kitten shows up with a ball of yarn.

HP: Dmitri has a fantastic gauge of what should be prepared and what should be left to the moment. He is a wizard of a bandleader: manning the ship with precision, but you hardly notice it’s happening until the show is done and everything magically fell into place. He knows when to hold the torch and when to pass it, and since there’s no ego on the stage, the music really goes places. I learn a ton from Dmitri every time we work together, that's a gift in itself.