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Matthew Silberman: Expansive, Expressive and Explosive Jazz

Gigi Brooks speaks with the saxophonist and composer about his life and music

Matthew Silberman (photo by Jonathon Kambouris)

The greatest thing about jazz is that it allows for imagination, improvisation, exploration and most importantly… progression. It is most refreshing when I come across an artist who has no fear of the unknown in his music and presses through to find and create his own identity and sound.

Saxophonist/composer, Matthew Silberman is one of those artists who is not afraid to explore what music can become, while utilizing what music already is. His debut album, Questionable Creatures on DeSoto Sound Factory, takes us on a journey of what music can become through its eclectic grooves, peculiar noises, daring melodies and rich sounds. This work of improvisation comes with an ensemble of not one, but two guitarists- Ryan Ferriera and Greg Ruggiero, bassist, Chris Tordini and drummer Tommy Crane. A must hear!

Silberman is no stranger to the stage as he has shared the stage with great artists such as Roy Hargrove, Nancy Wilson, Billy Higgins, Patrice Rushen and a host of others.

I sat in awe listening and learning about his life and music during this enlightening interview.

Gigi Brooks: I read that you attended your mother’s opera rehearsals and performances as a child, what happened on the inside of you during those performances?

Matthew Silberman: I think it created a real deep seeded love of music and a realization as to how much power music can have. It definitely…maybe subconsciously influenced my conception of playing the saxophone I think even though I wasn’t playing it obviously as a youngster I think hearing all of these really strong voices, people trying to convey emotion to the audience really carried over when I became serious about playing music and the saxophone. I tried to have that vocal sound and try to imitate singers and have that power and communication to the audience…as a friend of mine said… “moving molecules around.”

Something was birthed on the inside of you and it grew.

Yes, definitely! Music was just something that was always around, you know always hearing vocal lessons and I would go and mess around with my mom’s piano and then eventually when I was six she started me on formal piano lessons, which actually she was real careful not to push music on me and make me resent it; sometimes children of musicians are sort of forced to play music and they don’t actually like it. My mom was always really careful to make sure it was me that was expressing interest, to make sure she was not shoving her own stuff on me.

When I was six I started playing piano, when I was nine I started playing clarinet and then when I was thirteen I started playing saxophone, which was actually because my mom suggested it, because I was beginning to get bored of the clarinet. My dad is a big jazz lover and he’s the one who got me into jazz and it was maybe six months prior to that he bought me my first Charlie Parker and John Coltrane CDs. I have to admit as much as I loved Coltrane at thirteen, it was a little over my head. I got that there was something good there, but I didn’t really listen to it that much right away, but the Charlie Parker just kinda’ immediately spoke to me and made me curious about the saxophone like so many saxophone players over the years.

What do you think it was about Charlie Parker’s playing that made your heart lean towards his music and the saxophone aside from John Coltrane? What was the difference there?

I think there’s a certain lyricism… I think Charlie Parker is maybe a little bit more…obviously melodic to someone like myself who was coming from a more classical background. Coltrane, who I grew to love really deeply about a year later, became a huge influence on me, but at that point I think there was something about the way he played on the CD that I’m referencing is Newport ’63, with Roy Haynes was an amazing album. I think there was something…harmonically he was a little more adventurous or a little more advanced than I think my ears were understanding at the time; whereas Charlie Parker was definitely advanced, but still harmonic conceptions you would hear in classical music from a similar era. I think also the fact that he was a melodic improviser versus Coltrane, he would be more concerned with harmonic devices and rhythmic devices and somehow at my age it was easier to grasp and the fact that the songs themselves were much shorter…he had 3 to 4 minute songs instead of 15 or 20 minute songs and as a young kid my attention span wasn’t developed.

[Laughs] We know Coltrane had a few recordings that went thirty minutes or more…

[Laughs] Yeah. I got into that a little later. I think Coltrane is a little more demanding on his audience than Charlie Parker was, it was just the time he evolved when the LP came out you could do a thirty minute recording; Charlie Parker was doing 78’s and did not have that amount of time.

True. How did your years at the New School prepare you as far as your style of improvisation and technique?

I think…first and foremost the great thing about the New School is it’s in New York City; it’s in the West Village. So after class we could go down to the Village Vanguard or the Blue Note, Smalls and all these great clubs and get to see all of these top notch musicians. I remember the first show I saw when I moved to New York was Paul Motion Trio at the Village Vanguard. It was really beautiful. We went to see Roy Haynes and Branford Marsalis and all of these people we really looked up to.

I call it “Jazz Heaven”!

Yeah! It really was! I found myself pretty much every night going to see shows. It was “Jazz Heaven” really. I would pick up the Village Voice or just look at the calendar and say where are we going tonight and before you know it you’ve spent all of your money going to these shows, but it was definitely worth it.

The school itself…one of the great things about the way it’s set up is that it’s still an academic institution so there are always going to be certain limitations, but it is set up a close to the jazz tradition as an academic institution could be. They bring in faculty who are jazz musicians who have toured and played with some of the greatest. So it’s not like you’re learning from someone who just listens to the music. You can also study privately with whomever you want as well, so I got to study with Steve Wilson, Greg Tardy, Mark Turner, Seamus Blake, Ron Blake, all of these amazing saxophone players…Chico Freeman. Then later I got to study with Ben Street and other non-saxophone players. That freedom to chase your own muse is what attracted me to the New School, I wanted to be somewhere that I could do what I wanted to do, but still learn traditional jazz.

The truth is…you don’t really learn until you go out there and play in the street…meaning clubs and so forth.

Oh, I totally agree! Before I got to New York, I was going to jam sessions in L.A.; The World Stage was a huge place for me which was run by Billy Higgins. I got a chance to play in the Hamilton Big Band and things like that is when I started getting into the music. Coming to New York, New School was a really great school, but it’s still an institution; going to places like Cleopatra’s Needle… and they used to have a club in Brooklyn called Up Over Jazz Cafe which had really great jam sessions. Playing in places like that and getting your butt kicked, taking your licks and realizing I need to get this together, I need to get that together is how you really learn and become who you are as a musician.

Very True. Your debut release Questionable Creatures, has an interesting cover art graphic of a hat above a nose and a mini poster inside with the same art which is unusual today in CD’s. Years ago, record albums included posters with the record, which was a real treat for fans. Who came up with this concept?

That was the designer of the CD and the artwork, Sandra Reichl, who’s an amazing Australian art designer. She gave me different ideas for the artwork and described her different pieces for the CD and we met up and one of the ideas she had was…she knew I was really into Salvador Dali, so to pay homage to Dali, she had this idea of breaking down my face into more of a character, as something Dali might envision. At first I was like…oh I don’t know it seems a little goofy and my nose is big enough, but then she sketched one out and I looked at it and said O.K. That’s really great! I loved the image of it and I wanted something that was memorable and striking. I see a lot of jazz album covers, which are just a portrait of the artists, which can be a great thing, because then you can get a sense of who they are, but for me I didn’t want it to just be a picture of me, but it gives a little bit more of who I am. Once we agreed on the title, which was her idea as well, but I resisted at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt like… (a) it captured the music better and (b)it gave us a more of a spring-board for the artwork since a lot of the pieces were some of these characters and creatures which represent different pieces on the album.

Well, it is an extremely unique and phenomenal piece of artwork that I’d like to frame and put on my wall. The album is another trip where the first track “Ghost of the Prairie” is explosive. Tell me about this sometimes explosive, soft, expansive, expressive project. How did you arrive at this with your band?

Thank you. Since graduating from the New School, my first band that I was really playing with regularly was with Tommy Crane on drums and Chris Tordini on bass and my connection with them dates back to the New School…Tommy and I have been playing together for about eleven years now, so that was definitely something that developed over time. There’s something about that band that had this sort of magical quality and it seemed like everyone really understood how to make the music more than the sum of its parts and to really let the music speak. I remember when I was younger reading Miles Davis’ autobiography and he would talk about how he really didn’t talk about music with the band, he would just get the right musicians and just let them play. That was something that always stuck with me and is how I wanted to try band leading….I didn’t want have to tell them what to do; I want them to be able to be themselves and not do the right thing and in this band it definitely happened like that.

I started playing with Ryan and Greg, the guitar players on the record and they are both two people that I thought were musicians I’d like to play with; they had distinctive styles and I thought this could really work I think. I was just imagining different bands and something a little different instrumentation wise, cause usually I’ve been playing with keyboard and guitar, I thought it was a little bit heavier than I wanted. Fast forward to 2011 and we started playing a bunch of gigs and rehearsing and it seemed like every time we played the music would just grow exponentially all of the sudden we were just into this new place already. By the time we recorded we understood what we were as a group and just…I guess they understood where I was trying to take the music and they bring the music to life so much I am really happy with it…I get goosebumps.

When I say it is a trip, I mean you are taking a trip through time in this project fusion, contemporary classic jazz and a touch of rock in there.

Definitely. For me music is just music. Obviously I studied jazz and that’s where I come out of as a musician, but I always try to view it more in terms of quality and not so much like Duke Ellington was saying, “There’s only two types of music….” So for me it was really the fact that at the New School I got to play with other musicians that had different styles and got to listen more and more to all kinds of stuff and I think all of those influences started to melt together. I guess and there were definitely a lot of rock bands I was listening to; a lot of hip-hop I was listening to…getting more and more into a lot of electronic music. You are a product of your influences and I always try to search out music that is fresh and different.

Would you agree that the spirit of Wayne Shorter is a part of this project?

Oh Definitely! He is one of my biggest influences and musical heroes!

Has he heard it yet?

I hope so. I don’t know that he has, but I will try to give him a copy. I have met him a couple of times, not that he would necessarily remember me. I got to see him with Herbie Hancock. I think there is a lot of his compositional influence that comes through me as well.

Originally Published