Dmitri Matheny’s ‘CASCADIA’ Goes Down Nice and Easy, Like Embraceable Jazz Should
His first new album in six years showcases the best of his NW home
Dmitri Matheny doesn’t ask a lot of you, dear listener. The WA-based jazz flugelhornist and composer does all the work, behind the scenes and in front of the mic — on bandstands across America and in the studio — so you can focus solely on the music and musical stories, anecdotes, and tone poems that move him, from time-honored ballads and stellar soundtracks, to his personal obsession and personal best, jazz noir.
You should see his media kit, equipped with all the bells and whistles any music journalist requires: uncomplicated digital downloads and streaming options, one, shortcut, cheat sheet overview for the lazy reviewers, a comprehensive, readable bio, quotable, to-the-point press release, cover photo, artist photos, even key selling points to help get the review rolling.
He’s thought of everything.
It’s been more than a minute since his last album, Jazz Noir, an ode to the gumshoe and the femme fatale of the 1920s-‘50s, with a sprinkling of ‘70s fire power, “Streets of San Francisco” style.
Six years to be exact.
A pandemic happened, derailing a lot of artists and sending them scattering to the four winds — and necessary introspection — to survive that darkest of nights with the savvy of a pivoting business maverick and the conviction of a starving artist hopelessly, helplessly in love with his torrential muses.
Like many artists, Matheny hunkered down during the lockdown, turned to virtual teaching and performances, and, somewhere in between the limbo and the echo chamber, found another album within him…as the world began opening up again.
CASCADIA itself opens up to worlds of luminescent wonder, enchanting, organic synapses, and healing transmutations, unapologetically melodic and soft around the edges, reveling in what makes a song memorable, and sometimes, a bonafide hit: beautiful, touching lyricism, expressive melodies that dance around a charcuterie of tasty harmonies…evocative movement that goes somewhere special, and finishes with purposeful flourish.
CASCADIA, as the name implies, is Matheny’s love note to the place he calls home, and a gently stirring sense of place it is. The 10-track, Origin Records debut, his 12th album as a bandleader, drops in a few days, which the Art Farmer protégé has been counting down on social media in a variety of creative, charming ways.
Through standards, a pop cover of Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman,” six of his original compositions (yes!), plus one more for the road from band member Bill Anschell, Matheny’s quintet doesn’t so much play as savor the loops and binders of charted history, sleight-of-hand reinvention, and an innate flair for finding the pulse in what moves us all.
The CASCADIA quintet features guys Matheny’s been gigging with for a long time, the very best of the NW: pianist Anschell, drummer Mark Ivester, and bassist Phil Sparks, and featuring saxophonist Charles McNeal grooving on heart-tugging, soul-yearning tones, textures, and rich, lustrous tapestries.
“I’m so proud of this band,” Matheny enthused in a press release, “and so grateful for their brilliant work on this project. We set out to celebrate the sound and spirit of our beloved home region, its luminous wonders, enchanted forests, healing waters, and vibrant creative community. There’s an aspirational sense of place here in the upper left. I believe our music reflects that life-affirming ethos.”
The title track, written by Matheny, sets the sparkling jewel tones for the rest of the record. Anschell’s ivory notes glitter over Ivester’s twinkling, clinking icicle-cocktail-glass chimes, as the master himself threads his ever-arching Brazilian, Rubenesque lines through the filter of American dreams, American pop culture, and American cinema, the likes of Burt Bacharach and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” — embedded firmly, fondly in the shimmy-shake of the “Mad Men” ‘60s, when pop and jazz met their match.
Tadd Dameron’s “On a Misty Night” unwinds in shadowy-snappy vignettes of time and feeling, as in a loosely guarded medley, tumbling into a pile of multi-colored pixie sticks. Lighter in step, yet fuller in sound than John Coltrane’s rendition, in an almost orchestral maneuverability.
McNeal, who plays soprano and tenor sax on this record, jauntily ties the pieces together with a silky bow, followed by Anschell on his busty, bluesy jigsaw-jumping keys, and rounded out by Matheny, who pulls off a few fancy tricks of his own — all in his good-natured time.
“Evergreen Girl” kicks off in a bass-thumping, cymbal-tickling, room-spinning film-noir theme. No wonder, Matheny wrote this one, too. One can imagine “Evergreen Girl” opening for a remake of the 1946 movie, “The Killers,” or “Night and The City” from 1950.
The musicians lock into the locked-and-loaded rhythm real tight, circling around a modish, cheeky mood (dig Matheny letting the last flurry of upward-bound notes shiver in their boots), each slipping into a concentrated, sweet-talkin’, character-laden solo — chartreuse dialogue — before taking turns letting go of the reins, as is the jazz way.
Matheny’s third, original composition, “Dark Eyes,” gets into the soul of the femme fatale, the girl that got away, and all of the mysteries of her troubled, bait-trap universe that keeps the well-trodden detective coming back for more, back to the Casablanca of their undoing.
“Dark Eyes” is all rustling, petticoat pitter-patter, the sweat of brassy, coiling vines, and the intensity of ardor gone terribly wrong in the unruly, tousled morning-afters of Anschell’s piano love story. Matheny and McNeal personify the two tragic figures in the night, as only flugelhorn and sax can, with dripping, tonal regret.
“Perfect Peaches” is the sunshine-y bossa-nova day to “Dark Eyes’” eternal night, a melody unto itself, played on bright springs, as if Matheny had been composing its burnished lumber and gleaming cobblestones from birth, adding contemporary embellishments — the pop of piano, sax holding the starry-starry light, bass and drums exchanging patty-cake milestones — as he and his memories age gracefully through the rotating years.
“Perfect Peaches” could be an ode to a favorite food, a childhood brimming over with backyard barbecues, eventides around a fire pit and mom’s blueberry pie, family reunions, and nostalgic gratitude. Old fashioned and quaint, the stuff of daydreams in between the hard work of adulting.
Matheny’s original “Lonesome Road” falls directly into blues territory, picking up the slow, steady pace of cross-country drives, bustling fast-food takeout, and rockabye riffs from the days of an old Bob Hope/Bing Crosby road movie, director’s cut — a breath before the action picks up, stranded on a deserted dirt road, waiting for a sign and a bus ride home.
Phil Sparks’ bendy bass is the best, uplifted in a gospel-forward, staggered hesitation from Anschell’s piano, which McNeal’s sax touches on in all the scrappy, gritty places beneath the pulpit and the pews.
Lest anyone assume Matheny’s only all about pretty melodies and standard licks, try “Bourdain” on for size — the one and only zinger in the bunch, and devoted to the late chef/world food traveler. “Bourdain” immediately jumps into the fray, with a tongue-in-groove, confrontational question mark of a piano intro, dripping bronze and camphor, and the burnt-pennies tinge of foreboding.
It’s the most interesting, conceptual track off the album, and it’s Matheny’s, too.
Starring a thoughtfully spacious mix of intention and improv-collab, careening, stanza’d land mines, a lingering, wistful, willfully melodic refrain, and clear-cut cinematic scope, cut with something else…something more off-kilter, jumbled, and stormy (McNeal’s melting-wax tin soldier, Ivester chasing missing spare parts), something less emo-linear and more abstract, without completely going off the rails…something startlingly unlike Matheny.
Something closer to Bourdain’s famously contrarian, punk-rock-lovin’ celebrity…freedom in a shrinking, microscopic maze, the kind of jazz he might’ve embraced as unique, and unpretentiously authentic.
The thunder-and-rain-soaked homage sounds as if Matheny wrote the soundtracky melody, then opened up the rest of the piece to McNeal and Ivester to do what they will.
Matheny assumes the instrumental role of Glen Campbell’s romantic narrative in Jimmy Webb’s 1968 pop hit, “Wichita Lineman.” But this version’s a bit more upbeat, with a quickened tempo, slowed down and pondered only when the flugelhornist resumes his musings, touching ever-so tenderly on the what-if of a haunting female voice heard through the line.
His and Anschell’s tender touch and lyrical lines will, if nothing else, drive you to YouTube — or your vinyl collection — to listen again to simplicity made plaintively, soulfully whole.
Bill Anschell’s “Humble Origins” — a turn on Origin Records? — is much like the restlessly imaginative piano composer: on a higher plain, everywhere at once, with complex musical trains of thought and intersecting harmonic composure, reaching for the same kind of different as Anthony Bourdain, with his ghetto finds and his overseas inductions.
“Humble Origins” gives off hints of the faintly melodic — articulated in singularly solo-worthy, improvisationally-interactive snippets…moments imbued on Matheny’s flugelhorn, split into fleshy sections by McNeal on his sax, and re-instigated in a blanket-tossing clearing by Anschell, letting the notes bury seeds where they land, roaming on a desert plain halfway to the next big city.
Anschell’s Greatest Hits, truncated, expanded, and adjudicated, in a real-time, made-for-jazz jam session.
“After the Rain” bookends the album full circle, with a somber, quiet Coltrane reminder — highlighting the horn section — delivered in semi-automatic waves: contemplative, interstitial piano exchanges, with room for other instrumental responses, the softly stirring downpour of drum-showers, the long, reluctant goodbye, loopily hooked on a feeling, as only an Art Farmer protégé can pull off.
Dmitri Matheny, in his CASCADIA trailer from four months ago, previews the recording with words like “luminous wonders,” “enchanted forests,” and “healing waters,” showcasing the allure — for him — of Cascadia’s bioregion.
He and his band capture all of that and more, musically, while leaving the listener refreshed, rejuvenated, and restored.
Hello, friend. Nice to see you again.