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By Jarrod Dicker
New Brunswick, NJ, USA
“Jazz really just means hodgepodge,” explains bassist Reed Mathis while attempting to delineate the meaning of the word “jazz”. “When someone says they’re a jazz musician, it basically means that they’re a student of all music,” he continues. “It means that they’re a student of improvisation. Jazz just means American; it means accidental; it means melting pot.”
Reed Mathis (credit: Jeremy Scott)
Reed Mathis is arguably the greatest bassist of this generation. The prime composer and principal architect of Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey until 2008, Mathis migrated west to anchor the rhythm section of the San Francisco jam-rock quartet, Tea Leaf Green. Never shying away from a chance to collaborate with stellar, stalwart musicians, Mathis also stands as an active member of the Marco Benevento Trio and formerly as a collaborator in 7 Walkers (which features Papa Mali and Grateful Dead alum, Bill Kreutzmann).
Mathis released his second album with Tea Leaf Green, Looking West, on June 8th of this year, producing the entire record solely on his laptop. A master composer and instrumentalist of all musical genres, Mathis is truly a melodious wildfire that cannot and will not be extinguished for a long time to come.
Jarrod Dicker spoke with the “Ginger-Christ-Superstar” about the making of Looking West, his legacy in Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, the Marco Benevento Trio, his upcoming solo record, the economics of musicianship, learning the Grateful Dead and more.
THIRSTY: I’ve read that you grew up around a very musical family with a strong melodic background. Was becoming a professional musician drilled into you from adolescence or was it a direction you decided to take on your own accord?
Reed Mathis: No, it was never drilled into me; actually, it wasn’t ever really spoken about. It was always around my house growing up and was never looked at as something you did; it was just part of your day. And it wasn’t an occupation any more than eating food is an occupation. Growing up around my parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, you didn’t think of a musician as a certain type of person. A musician was just like anyone else. I thought everyone was a musician [laughs], at least until I got to school. Until I was about five years old, all the adults I was around were very accomplished musicians. Well, what I consider very accomplished. As I said, it wasn’t drilled into me, but I sort of never thought I’d do anything else, you know?
THIRSTY: You’ve played and studied with many conventional classical assemblages throughout your teens (Tulsa Philharmonic and Interlochen Center for the Arts program). What led you to make the transition into new-age exploratory jazz seen throughout your former efforts in Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey? Is there an actual moment you can pinpoint as the prime catalyst for the shift?
Looking West (2010)
Reed Mathis: Well, I got a bass guitar when I was eleven. That was the age when I was allowed to play something that wasn’t for classical purposes. Not really that I was forbidden per se, but I just didn’t have any money to buy my own instrument [laughs]. So I finally bought a bass and soon realized that a student was able to bring their bass to school as long as they signed up for the jazz band. I just really wanted to bring my bass to school [laughs], so I ended up joining jazz band in high school. I was already into improvised shit like Hendrix, Primus, Yes and Led Zeppelin. The truth is, I really liked the kids in jazz band more than I liked the music we were playing. I just liked hanging out with those guys. Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey wasn’t something anybody put together on purpose. It just sort of happened. It was a band before I even knew it was a band. The first gigs were booked almost as joke and then clubs started to get packed and it became, ‘Hey I guess we’re a band now, let’s go on tour.’
THIRSTY: The new Tea Leaf Green record, Looking West, is the group’s first album since 2008. What was the inspirational force behind this record? Was there an overall message the band wanted to convey through the tracks?
Reed Mathis: We started going into the studio right after a hefty tour last summer; literally the day after we got home. We were just really oiled up and it was honest, easy playing at that point. We went into the studio and started calling out tunes that we were doing throughout the tour without thinking that much about an overall album. We were just sort of spit-balling it. Once we had a pile of songs recorded we looked at them all and there was a group of tracks within the group of songs that really jumped out at us. So we got together several times and took everything we recorded—every take of everything—and took notes. We observed ourselves several months after the fact, which is a very educational process. Then we decided to focus on the thirteen songs that ‘asked’ to be grouped together. There was no specific intention behind this record. That came after we looked at everything we recorded and saw there was an obvious group within it.
THIRSTY: In this month’s Relix (July/August, 2010) you told Aaron Kayce that after leaving Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey you took a back seat in the Tea Leaf Green creative process. How much did you contribute to the latest record, Looking West, and were you more or less involved compared to the 2008 album, Raise Up the Tent?
Reed Mathis (credit: Michael Hollender)
Reed Mathis: When Raise Up the Tent was released, I was only in Tea Leaf Green for about six weeks. I was still getting everybody’s last name at that point as a figure of speech. I was still in JFJO for a year after we made Raise Up the Tent. I was in three bands in 2008 and then I did two bands for a six month stretch and then got into a third band again. I did three bands for the last year and now I’m back to two bands. As you can see, it’s a lot of fun [laughs].
THIRSTY: How about the way you now approach recording in the studio; has that changed at all since leaving Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey?
Reed Mathis: How I’m playing now is not that different objectively than how I would approach a JFJO album or show. I’m still 100% improvised; I don’t have bass parts for any of the Tea Leaf Green songs. I know what key they’re in and I know the form, but I don’t have a specific part. So I still approach every part of every show the same way I always have; with a completely blank mind. When I put on my producing shoes, I do the same thing I did when I approached the JFJO records I made. I just enter my mind, expect nothing, and stay alert. The thing makes itself, for better or worse. That’s what improvising is all about; letting a higher power—if you will—call the shots.
THIRSTY: You received a lot of fan criticism after leaving Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey for Tea Leaf Green. Two years later, are you completely satisfied with the decision to switch over to the Tea Leaf Green family?
Reed Mathis: Oh man, totally…totttalllllly. It’s night and day, honestly… night and day.
Reed Mathis (credit: Jeremy Scott)
THIRSTY: I interviewed Marco Benevento for last month’s issue and he had great things to say about your playing. How did you come to collaborate with Marco Benevento that eventually led to the creation of the Benevento Trio?
Reed Mathis: I was good friends with Joe Russo (Benevento/Russo Duo) in the late ‘90s. He had a band named Fat Mama that JFJO used to perform with. I love Russo. He was actually in JFJO for about 3 weeks in the year 2000 [laughs]…
THIRSTY: I feel like Joe Russo is in every band nowadays…
Reed Mathis: Yes, exactly. So I met Benevento through Russo. I think he and I knew each other for years before we sat down just the two of us. I was sitting in with the Duo and he was randomly sitting in with JFJO. Eventually, Benevento made a record that—when he sat down with Russo—wasn’t coming through as something the Duo would play. Benevento was wondering what to do with them, so he called me and asked me to play with him. He sent me the demos and we just started booking shows. It was basically an outlet for Benevento’s songwriting more than anything else. I love his piano playing and I love him as a bro; I think his songwriting is by far his best skill. As cool as a guy as he is and as cool as a pianist as he is, his composing is even better in my opinion. I’m just lucky to be the guy who helps those songs get air in their lungs.
THIRSTY: Both of you are top tier masters in writing and instrumentation. For someone who is a renowned composer and writer, would you ever consider creating your own group around all original ‘Reed Mathis’ compositions?
Reed Mathis: Well, it’s funny you mention that. I actually started recording a solo record just weeks after leaving JFJO. I’ve been working on it for a year and a half now. We’ve finished final mixing on Side A last month and when I get home from this tour we’re going to mix Side B. And then the record will be done and released.
(credit: Michael Hollender)
THIRSTY: Will the record be toured?
Reed Mathis: I’m just trying to finish the record, man [laughs]. That’s not where my head is at the moment.
THIRSTY: As you’ve stated, you often engulf yourself in multiple projects at the same time, currently Tea Leaf Green and the Marco Benevento Trio. How do you weigh each project against one another? Does one take priority over the other?
Reed Mathis: Marco and I both come from a strong jazz background which means that you basically put together a band with whoever could fucking get there that day [laughs]. It’s really how jazz has always worked. ‘Oh Freddy can’t make it? Where’s Tommy?’ So my approach is that I’m at every Tea Leaf Green show and then I hit every Benevento show that I can make. Benevento’s a real good sport about it and is tolerant of me being involved with other stuff. He feels that the best representations of the Trio’s songs are when he, Andrew Barr, and I are playing together. I don’t know if it’s the best, but it definitely has its own thing. I’ve heard him with other rhythm sections and it’s definitely crushing and different; very cool. It’s interesting to hear Marc Friedman, who plays bass when I can’t make it, and Dave Dreiwitz from Ween, who substitutes as well. They all have awesome and equally valid takes on those songs.
THIRSTY: In an economical time when austerity measures make it extremely tough to make a living as a musician, does the decision to perform in multiple bands/projects ever shift from love of the music to fiscal logic?
Reed Mathis: For better or worse, money never really enters my mind in regard to that. I probably would be better off if I did think about money from time-to-time, but I really just work solely on inspiration. That’s my only fuel and motivation. I will play in sidebands if they are good bands. People like my wife and folks will ask, ‘Reed will you ever say no to a gig?’ And it’s just like, ‘I’ll start saying no when crappy musicians start calling me for gigs [laughs].’ When it’s Bill Kreutzmann or Page McConnell calling me for gigs, what am I supposed to say, no? I’m getting calls by brilliant innovative virtuoso composers. I can’t say no [laughs]. I’ll start saying no when I’m 50.
THIRSTY: You’ve played with the band 7 Walkers (Bill Kreutzmann) as well as guitarist Steve Kimock in the past. As both bands channel the Grateful Dead in form and spirit, is it safe to assume that you grew up a Deadhead?
Reed Mathis (credit: Michael Hollender)
Reed Mathis: Honestly, I wish I had been influenced by the Grateful Dead growing up because the music is just so gorgeous, I hadn’t heard the Grateful Dead really before touring with Steve Kimock. The guy who was driving our tour vehicle was a serious archivist. He was the kind of guy you can ask what his favorite 80 shows were and he could list them off without blinking; a real scholar of the catalog. This was my chance…so I turned to him and said, ‘Turn me on, play me a track, I wanna hear the tracks. [laughs] You are my Grateful Dead guru, show me what’s up.’ So he started playing stuff for me and I was just like, ‘Jesus, this is sooo good.’ I just didn’t grow up around it. In Oklahoma, people at my high school weren’t really listening to it; we were listening to the Beastie Boys and John Coltrane.
THIRSTY: You produced Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey’s album, Winterwood before you left for Tea Leaf Green. Are you still an active producer? If so, what have you produced lately?
Reed Mathis: Well, I produced Looking West. 100% of that record was made on my laptop. And then my solo record that I’m finishing up in the next month—it’s been 15 months in the making—I’ve also been producing. It was recorded in ten different studios with fifteen of the best musicians in the world. So that’s been a huge production undertaking. Probably the biggest thing I’ve ever made. But I was really proud of Winterwood. It’s my favorite Jacob Fred album and I spent about a year working on it. I think it turned out great even though I didn’t get the chance to put the finishing touches on it.
THIRSTY: Any chance you are willing to discuss who the aforementioned “fifteen best players” on your upcoming album are?
Tea Leaf Green
Reed Mathis: Eh, not yet. [laughs]
THIRSTY: For a final question: What does the word “Jazz” mean to you?
Reed Mathis: Jazz really just means hodgepodge. That’s really all it means. When someone says they’re a jazz musician, it basically means that they’re a student of all music. It means that they’re a student of improvisation. That’s what I think it means. Not someone who puts on a suit and copies the 1950s groups. Jazz just means American; it means accidental; it means melting pot.