Interview: Greta Matassa chats with NWMS

Greta Matassa photo by Ziggy Spitz

One of the Pacific Northwest’s truly great jazz musicians, singer Greta Matassa is back with her first album in way too long, Portrait (see below).  Her birthday gig on Friday, September 6th at Tula’s is already sold out; but check her out with her band on Friday, September 13th at the Royal Room and Thursday, September 19th, at Shoreline’s North City Bistro and Wine Shop.  She was kind enough to take some questions.


NWMS:  What are your earliest memories of Seattle, visiting from Bainbridge Island?

 

Greta Matassa:  It’s funny you should ask that.  I am going for a bike ride on Bainbridge Island tomorrow with my family for the first time in years. 

I vividly remember sitting on the fantail of the Walla Walla ferry coming over to Seattle in about 1979 and looking at the lights of the “big city“ and hoping someday to be a professional singer in that city.   Thanks to the faith my parents had in me and a few kind hearted cocktail pianists, booking agents, and early musical friends I was able to make that a reality by the time I was seventeen.

NWMS: Which record stores did you visit with your father, and what are your favorite memories of them?

 

Greta Matassa:  The main record store I remember of course was the famous Bud’s Jazz Records down on First Avenue in Pioneer Square. Bud and I became friends over the years and it was always an education to go into that establishment. He would share with me his insights into great recordings. 

Aside from Bud’s Jazz Records, dad and I used to go into any Goodwill or general thrift store, head to the record bin and sort through it. Ironically, thanks to the renewal of interest in vinyl I see enough a lot of young people doing exactly that these days!

NWMS: How has Seattle grown and changed, for better and/or worse, over the years?

 

Greta Matassa:  Well, having been in the music business based out of Seattle for the last forty years, I can say honestly that I’ve seen an awful lot of changes. Mostly for the good. Seattle has always had a thriving jazz scene. It has ebbed and flowed over the years but the core fan base and dedicated musicians have always kept it alive. 

We are facing the unfortunate loss of a great jazz institution in the coming month. Tula’s  jazz club is closing its doors at the end of September. I’ve had the pleasure of headlining at that room for 26 years! It is a tremendous loss to the community. 

Its closing has nothing to do with lack of attendance or poor business practices. On the contrary, business has been great.  However, with a development of the Belltown area and a general lack of foresight in city planning, this whole block will be demolished and developed in the coming years. 

So, I would have to say, I enjoy seeing the growth and healthy economy of Seattle. On the other hand I would hate to see it lose its heart in the process.

 

NWMS: What music made you want to make music–which artists, albums, songs, shows, films, etc.?

 

Greta Matassa:  I think I was first influenced by the great MGM musicals.  Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland etc. Those fabulous, fantasy night clubs were always a spellbinder. But at the same time I was listening to my parents’ jazz record collection growing up, and with the lack of exciting music during the disco period of my youth, I was drawn to the classic jazz singers. 

My dad made sure I was exposed to singers like Ella Fitzgerald Billie Holiday Sarah Vaughn, Nancy Wilson and many other classics.  My early favorite was Anita O’Day. Her records Pick Yourself Up With Anita O’Day  and Anita Sings The Most, were virtually worn out on my record player.

I actually taught myself to sing, by committing myself at an early age to “tracing“ these great recordings. I call it tracing because I would sing along, note-for-note, phrase-for-phrase, breath for breath all of these great recordings until I was able to virtually get inside the mind and body of these artists and physically teach my voice to emulate them. I continue this practice to this day.

NWMS:  You cite Anita O’Day and Frank Sinatra as pivotal influences.  Which of their albums and songs meant the most to you, and what did you learn from them?  Did O’Day’s famous lack of vibrato become a factor for you?

Greta Matassa:  Frank Sinatra I would say has been my strongest influence. My dad loved Frank and we listen to him a lot. I can vividly remember learning every phrase from the album Come Dance With Me!, arrangements by Billy May. I still sing along with this record every day. 

Anita O’Day, her reckless and playful interpretations of jazz standards fascinated me. Her lack of vibrato was never an issue as it is sparingly used in jazz anyway. I was more fascinated by her rhythmic approach to improvisation.

NWMS: Portrait is your first album since 2011.  Why the layoff?

Greta Matassa:  I started teaching this music about twenty years ago, I have discovered not only am I a very good teacher, but I really love it. I have a huge student base locally and internationally. At this point in my career much of my touring involves not only performances but clinics and workshops. I have managed to balance a career as a performing artist and educator. In that process I had unconsciously set my recording career aside to focus on both. 

This recording is my first in 11 years, and frankly the one I am most proud of. It represents the last decade of development for myself as an artist and my relationship with my quintet.

It is a documentation of sorts, of my work with his great musicians at the jazz club Tula’s I loved.  It is also a dedication to my late father who was such an influence on me.


NWMS:  Is it my imagination, or are you not scatting as much on the new one as in years previous?

 

Greta Matassa:  I love to scat-sing and have been told by many instrumentalists that they think I am one of the best in the country at it. I do however understand that it is not everyone’s cup of tea. I don’t know whether I consciously recorded less of this type of improvisation on this recording. The examples that do exist on this recording I’m very proud of. Trading fours with Alexey Nikolaev on tenor saxophone is not for the faint of heart!

NWMS:  How did you learn scat-singing?  How has your scatting grown and changed over the years?

 

Greta Matassa:  I learned about scat-singing initially, by simply memorizing  Ella Fitzgerald scat solos phrase by phrase. This allowed me to get an experience of what that kind of soloing felt like.  

Many people do not understand that scat singing is spontaneous and not pre-rehearsed or pre-written. It is every bit as original as any instrumentalist’s solo. In that sense it needs an understanding of harmonic structure, rhythmic verbalization, flexibility of instrument, melodic ideas and a lot of taste.  I think over the years the thing I have most developed and most focused on is taste.

I enjoy teaching-scat singing, I feel it is a dying art and needs to be taught. It is a form of expression that involves spontaneous songwriting, it is also the most free-form part of my singing.

NWMS:  Where did you record the new album, and who was your recording crew?  Any favorite recording stories?

 

Greta Matassa:  I recorded the new album Portrait at David Lang studios in Fife. David Lang, to my mind is the best recording engineer, mixer in the country.  He is amazingly easy to work with.  He has a very musical mind and a very diplomatic disposition. All great qualities in a recording studio.

NWMS:  Who’s your band on the new one?  How long has each one been with you, and what does each one add to the mix?

 

Greta Matassa: As I mentioned, this album is a loving documentation of the work I have done over the last 20 years with my band. My pianist Darin Clendenin, my husband Clipper Anderson on bass, and drummer Mark Ivester have been with me for over twenty years. Our most recent addition Alexey Nikolaev on the tenor saxophone has been with us for the last ten years.

You have only to listen to this recording to see how intuitive, sensitive and amazingly supportive musicians are with me. We are of one mind. It helps that we have developed these songs on stage over the years together, letting the arrangements settle in. The spontaneous conversation that is a jazz set, has always been my favorite thing in life. These musicians more than any others help me share that experience.

As I’ve mentioned to my students, I always try to pick songs with “good bone structure”. Great compositions by Michel Legrand, Billy Strayhorn, Blossom Dearie, and Duke Ellington are represented here.

NWMS:  What lead you to choose “To Make You Feel My Love”?  Had you done other Dylan tunes before?

Greta Matassa: I have always tested that great songs are great songs regardless of genre. This Bob Dylan tune is a classic and lent itself very well to our gospel arrangement.

Our group has incorporated a fair amount of relatively contemporary material. I regularly perform Pat Metheny, Michael Brecker, Stevie Wonder, and Al Jarreau compositions. As I said, great songs are great songs.

NWMS:  “Lush Life” has a reputation as a difficult tune.  Did you find it so?

Greta Matassa: “Lush Life” is one of the most challenging songs in the classic jazz repertoire. However it is not impossible.

I find it’s more a case of maturity in terms of interpretation. Frankly, you have to have lived a little bit to deliver this song. Having worked in bars most of my life I guess I can say I speak from experience!

I was proud to read that one of the reviewers of this recording suggested that this might be the definitive recording of this classic. Thank you, Doug Ramsey at RiffTides

NWMS:  You’ve taken to (sometimes) taking requests from the audience.  What’s the oddest request you’ve ever heard?  What’s the oddest one you’ve ever tackled, and how did you tackle it?

 

Greta Matassa:  Working with a band that has as much history as mine, I am able to take spontaneous requests from an audience. I pick and choose the times when I offered to do this based on what I consider the sophistication of the audience. It requires that everyone on the bandstand have a deep knowledge of this music. I would never dream of doing this with anyone but these musicians. 

We have however over the years had some pretty fun requests. I remember a gentleman waving $100 bill at me and asking me to sing “My Way”. Although I am a Frank Sinatra fan, this particular song was not in my repertoire at the time but we did manage to pull off a nice enough version to get a standing ovation from the audience. While the audience was still clapping the gentleman came up with another hundred dollar bill and asked me to sing it again right then and there!

Obviously we all would love to take the hundred-dollar tip, but it is difficult to do the same song back to back!  We thought about it for a few seconds and created a spontaneous, gospel inspired version of it that brought the house down. That was one of the better nights!

NWMS:  What’s in your future after the birthday gig?

 

Greta Matassa:  With the loss of Tula’s myself and many of the area musicians have been in a bit of a daze. However, I am optimistic about the future of Jazz in the Seattle area, and to that end I have sourced up and booked myself into several of the other great jazz venues in the area in the upcoming months. 

I have an appearance at the Royal Room on September 12th with my quintet, never played there before so would love to fill the house.  Also, The North City Bistro, with a tribute to Nancy Wilson on September 19th.   

I’m sure jazz will survive and I will strive to continue to present the very best of this classic American music in years to come.

Andrew Hamlin

Andrew Hamlin likes to photograph shoes and write about dog shit. He was born and raised in Seattle, Washington, where he resides today. He attended the Evergreen State College, where he wrote and edited arts coverage for the Cooper Point Journal. He is the film critic for the Northwest Asian Weekly, and he’s published arts coverage and criticism in the San Diego Reader, Village Voice, Seattle Times, Seattle Weekly, Goldmine, and other publications. He misses Helen Wiggin. Hamlin’s website is https://andrewhamlin.org.