Sunday, January 29, 2012

Mandolinist Extraordinaire Matt Flinner Generously Shares "Winter Harvest"

I first discovered the Matt Flinner Trio, through their 2009 album, Music du Jour. At the time, I had been studying the mandolin for about a year and was largely listening to bluegrass as the guiding force in my studies. I often credit Music Du Jour as one of the first albums I was lucky enough to discover that fulfilled my desire to study mandolin beyond bluegrass.

Being new to the instrument at the time, I wasn't really sure where to look for new inspiration, and then a good friend recommended I check out an album he just picked up: Music du Jour. It was yet another example of how the universe works in mysterious ways: sometimes no matter how hard you look for something, you can never find it on your own. Simply put, sometimes these things just find you.

When I first played Music du Jour, what struck me almost instantaneously was that while the album was clearly influenced by the traditional forms of music that inspired me to begin learning mandolin, the trio expanded upon the music I was drawn to, and stretched it out into surprising, and to me, new directions. Not only did the album showcase aspects of traditional bluegrass that I loved and aspired to play myself, but it also brought in elements of jazz, folk, rock, and string band music, which all fused into a fresh and innovative hybrid of sounds and styles.

As I kept revisiting the album, I realized that I could not compactly classify the style of playing by the musicians or identify a genre for the album to be placed into (not that I was trying). To me, that has always been the test of a truly great record. And as a player and a listener, that got me excited!

I quickly learned that Matt Flinner was an award-winning banjo-playing prodigy, who then picked up the mandolin and went on to master that instrument as well! Mr. Flinner has performed and recorded with some of the best bluegrass and traditional music players anywhere. In addition, he has spent years recording a string of his own albums, that have infused both the sensibilities of bluegrass and jazz into longplayers that are as rewarding as they are inspiring to listen to.

As the Matt Flinner Trio, Mr. Flinner is joined by Ross Martin and Eric Thorin. One of the more fascinating aspects to me regarding the trio's working relationship is that the three musicians each spontaneously compose a new tune each night before a performance. With little rehearsal time together going over the new tunes, the group will play each new song at the gig. Sometimes these tunes are written only hours, or even minutes before taking the stage. This energy and daring spontaneity keeps things fresh, while charging up the group's creative flow, literally every night.

Now I admit, I may have been late to the "Matt Flinner party" that followers and longtime listeners have been enjoying for years, but to me, part of the joy of writing about music is making new discoveries and then sharing those with readers, in the hope of turning some new listeners onto some great music.

So to mark the occasion of the Matt Flinner Trio's new album, Winter Harvest, I decided to go right to the source and speak to Mr. Flinner himself about his career, up to and including his new album. As you will read, Mr. Flinner generously discussed his work at length, and devoted an impressive amount of his time toward this interview. I believe that both longtime listeners, as well as newcomers to Matt Flinner's work, will have lots to learn and enjoy.

Can you discuss your earliest music experiences? Which artists/ albums got you excited about music, and who were some of your earliest influences that inspired you to play music?

Matt Flinner: My dad had a pretty big bluegrass record collection and would spend evenings listening to groups like the Stanley Brothers, Flatt and Scruggs and Bill Monroe. So I grew up hearing it around the house. My older brother, Rex, decided at some point to teach himself how to play the banjo. That's when I really got interested in the music, when I heard him out playing gigs with his band, and got to see the music played live by real people at gigs and local festivals. So I asked him to give me banjo lessons when I was 10 years old, and he taught me for about two years.

At some point he got me out playing gigs with him to just get me out there and have fun (and a little money didn't hurt). We started busking at Trolley Square, a shopping center with an antique sort of feel to it, and then moved on to pizza joints, restaurants, clubs. So he was the biggest influence on me from the beginning; he taught me how important it is to have good timing, and to listen to the other players in the band, and to really "dig in" to get a good sound and good control.

Early on, when I was learning to play the banjo, I listened to the Dillards a lot. Then I moved on to Alan Munde, and tried to learn everything he ever played. That was quite an education! Along the way, Rex taught me all the Earl Scruggs tunes, as well as some melodic style stuff by people like Bill Keith. And then later I discovered Bela Fleck and tried to copy everything he did.

Mandolin-wise, I think I had less of a series of people I was trying to copy. I was really just trying to play music, and to play fiddle tunes, and some of the tunes I already knew on the banjo. I did listen a lot to Sam Bush, as well as Tim O'Brien and David Grisman. Over time I gravitated more and more to the mandolin, as it seemed to be an easier instrument for me to write new tunes on, and perhaps to find my own way.

Can you describe working with your father on the bluegrass show on KRCL-FM in Salt Lake City?

Matt: My dad got a call from someone at KRCL in 1981, I believe, asking if he would host the weekly bluegrass show. They had heard from someone that he had a big record collection. He agreed to do it as long as he could bring me along with him to help out (I was 12 at the time). So we'd sort of plan out a weekly 3-hour show, or do a lot of it on the fly, and just play the stuff that we liked. And my dad got kind of obsessed, I think, with getting more records to add to the collection so we'd have more stuff to play.

Plus, he just loved the music and wanted to find more of it. The record collection really expanded over the next several years, and then CDs came along and he started buying those. He ended up with a pretty good library of bluegrass music, and I got to sort of tag along and learn about a lot of great artists that I may have otherwise not known of.

I discovered the New Grass Revival, the early Country Gentlemen, J.D. Crowe and the New South, and everything Tony Rice ever put out, among so many other things. And I'd just sit and listen to that stuff as a kid. I think it gave me a pretty thorough education in what bluegrass is, from the early Bill Monroe recordings on through what was being established at that time with Tony Rice, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and all those guys.

How and when did you pick up the mandolin?

I picked up the mando at about age 12 (banjo at age 10). I liked it because it seemed to me to have an exotic sound to it, like something a pirate would play. What kid doesn't like pirates? My brother Rex also got me started on the mandolin, teaching me a few tunes and then letting me go off on my own.

How do these instruments connect for you?

Matt: The mandolin and banjo are very different, at least to me. The right hand technique is completely different and there isn't a whole lot that transfers directly from one instrument to the other in that respect. I think the banjo gave me a great beginning in bluegrass music, and with that background I was more able to learn the mandolin on my own.

Obviously there's a connection in that both instruments are important to the bluegrass style, so listening to banjo records also got me somewhat versed in mandolin. And having a banjo background may have been helpful in not leading me to directly copy mandolin players as much. I think I had such a banjo player's brain at that point that the mandolin was just sort of a nice foil for me, and I just played what I wanted to on it.

What would you say sets them most apart?

Matt: The banjo can give you a lot of sound with very little effort, and you can play tons of notes without looking like you're really doing much of anything.  It's fun for me to play traditional bluegrass sometimes, just to go back and play that sometimes high fast music on the banjo and go along for the ride. I love playing the old J.D. Crowe music from the early 70s, and stuff by the Osborne Brothers. It sort of feels freeing at times.

The mandolin is a more linear instrument, and melodic lines tend to fall into place more directly.  So in a way the mandolin is more accessible to me especially if I'm not familiar with the music I'm playing, like if it's a jazz tune. I can adapt melodies a little more quickly and at least just sort of blend in more easily.

Before we dig into your own discography, can you discuss some of the more memorable projects you were involved with?

Sure. Much of what I'd done before the Matt Flinner Trio CD was playing as a sideman for other people. I'd recorded for some folks out west, such as Ben Winship and John Lowell, Tim and Mollie O'Brien, Chris Proctor, Tony Furtado, and a band I had with Tony F. called "Sugarbeat." Most of the stuff was essentially backing up vocalists, which is always a good experience, but I hadn't done anything solely instrumental until I did my own CD, The View from Here.

That led to a couple of recordings with Todd Phillips and David Grier as Phillips, Grier and Flinner, and another solo record of mine with those guys on it, and a Matt Flinner Quartet CD which was more of a jazz-tinged project. Other highlights included Alison Brown's Fair Weather, a project called Gypsy Grass with Frank Vignola, and a Modern Mandolin Quartet recording of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker among other works.

For new listeners, can you briefly discuss your previous recordings before the Matt Flinner Trio: The View From HereLatitude, and Walking On The Moon?

My first CD, The View from Here, was done with the help of Todd Phillips, who produced it, and David Grier. I'd played a fair bit with David leading up to that time, and he was very helpful in getting  together to play the tunes and giving me some encouragement. I'd also played a fair bit with Tim O'Brien, and some with Mike Marshall and Jerry Douglas. But by and large, I was working with musicians that I admired but didn't know all that well personally (I'd never even met Darol Anger until he  came in for the session).

Latitude was a similar kind of project,  using my tunes and the players I imagined playing them (as much as I could pull off, anyway). With both of these records I was trying to create something in the "New Acoustic" vein but basically with more space. When you hear a jazz waltz played by a string band-type ensemble, for example, you tend to hear a lot of eighth notes both from the soloist and the rhythm players. I wanted to get away from that and let the music breathe more.

So I was hoping that the tunes had space written into them, which I think they mostly did. And phrasing-wise, I was trying to play the way Miles Davis would play the mandolin (not that he ever would have, but it would have been pretty cool!). Besides finishing up the tunes for the record, it seems like all I did leading up to The View from Here was listen to Miles' records, over and over and over again. His phrasing, to me, is so vocal and often puts you on the edge of your seat waiting for the next note. Having that space in a string band ensemble was something that I thought would be refreshing.

Walking on the Moon was a more electric, jazz-flavored project. I was fortunate to be playing with some phenomenal musicians. Gawain Mathews on the guitar, Sam Bevan on the bass, and Aaron Johnston provided a huge amount of color and musicality on the drums. The rhythm section of Sam and Aaron was pretty aggressive, and very freeing to me and Gawain, I think.

There is a lot of space on that record as well, and I think John Scofield (and maybe by extension, Miles Davis) had a big influence on that one. Gawain and Sam provided some great tunes, too, and figuring out how to approach all this material on the mandolin was a wonderful challenge. I think we managed to make the electric/acoustic combination work very well. Plus, we added Colin Bricker on Sampler on a few tunes. That was a mind-expanding experience for me!

What has been some of the most memorable and lasting experiences for you from working on these recordings?

Matt: I learned a lot from all of these recordings, but all along I think I've had the same essential desire in what results I want to get out of recording. Basically, I want a recording that is true to the music that's on it, that brings out the essence of that music, with no extraneous crap in it. It seems pretty simple, but I think it's not always that easy to get.

I like records that have a live feel to them, that capture the best of an ensemble playing live in concert (except it's in the studio). The magic I've learned from people like David Grier and Darrell Scott is really important to me, and that can only be captured when you're actually playing together. So you try to bring at least some of that magic to the recording.

I don't like hearing a CD with obviously overdubbed solos or rhythm parts (unless it's a good pop record or something where that's just part of the production). If we can't sound good as an ensemble and make the sound we're meant to make, we either need to practice more, or change the instrumentation, or just scrap it.

Can you talk about your recent experiences playing with Ross Martin and Eric Thorin, as the Matt Flinner Trio?

Matt: Playing with Ross and Eric is always a fun and freeing experience. Each instrument in that trio format has a lot of responsibility, and no place to hide. So you're putting yourself out there and supporting the other guys at the same time. It's a great space to be in because you're always challenged and you're always helping the other guys. And it's very real!

I think we're always getting better at getting to the essence of a tune, too (at least I hope so). Some tunes are just not about solos, for example. So leave them out! Or just take bass solos or guitar solos if that's appropriate. Or, whatever best suits the tune. Personally, I'm really tired of hearing Verse/Chorus/Solo/Verse/Chorus/Next Solo/etc.

I love Eric's tune "Wheels" (from Winter Harvest) because it's all just melody each time we play the form, but then when it comes around to the "C" part, it starts with melody then just sort of lifts into a solo by Ross or me. Then it ends. An unusual form, but that's the way it felt like it had to be. And it's not about hot solos, it's about music.

Some of your earlier recordings were captured around the time you were working with Todd Phillips and David Grier. Can you describe what was most memorable for you from these collaborations, and how these albums influenced your trajectory?

Matt: Playing with Todd and David gave me a better sense of "going for the moment." David is a wonderful improviser, and he's always playing things differently from one take to another. When he'd get a great solo, he'd deliberately not try to re-create it on another take, because for him the magic would not be there as it was the first time.

So he'd try to find that magic in a new way. And I think he's right, that you can't recapture spontaneity or create spontaneity deliberately. You have to just go for it fresh every time (or else it's not spontaneous). Todd helped give things an overall shape, and has a great compositional sense. Plus, his timing is impeccable. I think playing with him has improved my sense of time (I hope) as much as anything. 

You have also collaborated with a number of artists such as Steve Martin (on his The Crow LP), Tony Trischka, Darrell Scott, The Modern Mandolin Quartet, Frank Vignola, David Grier, Alison Brown, Nashville Mandolin Ensemble. Can you describe some of your most memorable collaborations and how these experiences have widened your musical palette?

Matt: I've  been incredibly fortunate to play with the musicians I've played with. The musical excellence of all of the artists you mentioned has been inspiring to me, and I've definitely learned a lot from all of them. The musical presence of someone like Darrell Scott just lifts you up and makes you better for it. The Modern Mandolin Quartet has made me focus on ensemble sound, phrasing and all the subtleties that come with  playing in a good chamber ensemble.

There are so many things I've gleaned from all of those people, and such a wide variety of music that I've been blessed to be able to collaborate on. I think things get stagnant when you're not being challenged; I love the feeling that comes with playing with a musician that challenges me in some way.

You mentioned Frank Vignola. I've been fortunate to record several CDs with him. Unfortunately, only one of those has been released, and the others may stay on the shelf! We'll see. But the record that did get released, Gypsy Grass, was one of the more memorable experiences I've had musically.

We all sat packed into one room around a bunch of mics: Frank on guitar, Vinny Raniolo on second guitar, Gary Mazzaroppi on bass, Casey Driessen on fiddle, and me on mandolin. Our percussionist, Rich Zukor, was in a separate booth next to us, but the door was open so we were all essentially in the same space.

There wasn't really room for me to move around, and I seem to remember having to watch my elbows so I wouldn't knock over Vinny's or Casey's mics. And there wasn't much room for fixing things. Mostly, we just took the best takes and went with them. They had a great live feel to them. We recorded the entire thing, 10 tunes, in one day (they did overdub the vocal group Take 6 on a couple of tracks a few weeks later). It's a really nice recording and it was exciting to make it. Definitely the quickest recording I've ever been part of. But, as I've learned from the MFT gigs, sometimes the best results come from being put on the spot.

In addition to performing, writing, and collaboration, you also teach and have produced a sizable amount of transcription work. Can you describe how these musical interests feed into each other?

Matt: Any transcription work I've done has always been a side-project and often as a favor to a friend who needs their stuff in some sort of notation form. But by and large, I have stopped doing it after finishing The Real Bluegrass Book for Hal Leonard about a year ago. That project was a wonderful, though challenging, experience.

I dug into the old bluegrass classics and remembered a lot of great music that I hadn't heard since I was a kid. Going back and hearing Bill Monroe's music from the 40s and 50s, and listening to Carter Stanley's singing, I found it to be a chilling experience at times. Listening through headphones you can hear them moving in and out of the single microphone, and you can almost see Jimmy Martin or Lester Flatt lift the guitar up to the mic to play a G-run. I got deeply back into that stuff for a while, and I think it's always good to go back to your roots and sort of re-boot.

Teaching is something I still do on a limited basis. Besides the enjoyment of seeing someone make progress on their instrument, I enjoy getting back into the basics myself. Just sitting down and playing slowly, listening to tone, listening to the space between your notes, it's what I should be doing every day anyway, and many of my students bring me back to that every time we have a lesson. And you never know what new things your students might lead you to.

Can you briefly describe how and when the band formed and take us through the band's writing process for Music du Jour?

We all knew each other through the Colorado scene, basically. I had been in a band with Tony Furtado called Sugarbeat, and when that band quit playing, Tony went out on his own and hired Ross Martin as his guitarist. So when they'd be in town (I lived in Jackson, WY at the time) I'd go sit in sometimes, and that's how I met Ross. Eric Thorin later joined Tony's band as well, and he and Ross (both living in Colorado at the time) played together on a lot of projects and gigs in the Denver area over the years.

The three of us definitely had a lot in common musically, and always enjoyed playing together. So a trio made sense, and in August of 2006, we started working together as the Matt Flinner Trio. And we're all good friends and enjoy hanging out on the road together, which is really important and makes being on the road not just tolerable but fun.

The writing process for a Music du Jour show only requires that the tune be started the day of the show (after midnight the night before is okay) and be completed the day of the show. And then it has to be performed on that night's show (which is basically the final stage of completion). There are no other "rules"; you don't even have to write for guitar, mandolin and bass if you don't want to, though we haven't written for anyone other than ourselves yet (with the exception of a couple of added guest trumpet players on a couple of gigs). Initially, I told the guys that if they were stuck for ideas they could write a piece in which we stand behind a fish tank and each look at a fish and just improvise. So far, we haven't had to do that.

I love that the band writes in hotel rooms, on hoods of cars, and about everywhere else one can imagine a band spends it's time on tour. The band then writes and arranges new songs on a "night-of" kind of basis while on the road. Can you describe the group's process?

Matt: At times we'll have a, say, six hour drive from one gig to the next. And once we arrive, maybe an hour before sound check (if we're lucky). So Eric and I will generally write on the road (sometimes even while driving, which we do not recommend) and Ross will generally write with the guitar in his hands, which is either before we leave or, more likely, when we get to the next venue, maybe somewhere backstage. We get together hopefully at least 30 minutes before the gig starts to run through the tunes that the three of us have written (we write separately, or have thus far, so we do three or more new tunes per show).

I think the most unique approach to writing thus far was done by Eric on one of our Colorado trips. When stuck for ideas, he blew a mouthful of blue corn chips onto a sheet of music paper, assigned notes to some of the blotches that resulted, and then wrote a tune around that melody. It's a good tune, too!  "Cumbia Maiz Azul".

Ross wrote "Bitterroot" in a very short time, maybe in 30 minutes or so? We arrived at our gig in Ketchum, ID and had about that amount of time before sound check. We asked each other how our tunes were coming, and Ross said something to the effect that he was about to start writing his. And it turned out to be a beautiful tune! Sometimes it's that pressure to produce in an especially short time that seems to yield really good results.

How has this approach of writing in such tight timeframes, and at such a fast pace inspired, influenced, and challenged you in the live performances?

Matt: I don't know if I can speak for Ross and Eric, but I know that for me it has helped me to let go of expectations and just go with the flow of the moment. Every tune we write is (hopefully) unique, and every performance of those tunes is also (hopefully) unique as well. And the excitement of playing something new in which you don't really know what is going to happen is sort of addictive.

It's not a matter of getting it perfect in the sense we'd usuaslly think of, but of getting it to work perfectly for that moment. So I anticipate that feeling of potential magic that happens when we are all on the same page musically, really listening and communicating, and creating something unique at that point in time. That feeling of magic moments is something we look for in other tunes as well, whether they were written that day or whether they're 100 year old tunes that we're re-working.

We also have gotten better at working together to make the music happen on short notice. When we have very little rehearsal time, we prioritize what really needs to be focused on (like melodies, ensemble lines, etc.) and leave the stuff that is less of a priority (like solos) unless we have time to take a couple of passes at it. We know we can play off each other at least to some extent, and I think we have a strong sense of trust in each other to make things work together. This has made playing together that much better and more fun. Plus in the process we (or certainly I, anyway) have all become better sight readers!

I know I speak for all three of us when I say that doing our Music du Jour project has made us all more adventurous musically. I think all of us have always been up for whatever challenges we face, but maybe we're a little bolder in those challenges now. And I think we've all been encouraged to reach beyond ourselves and find beauty when we ordinarily wouldn't expect to find it.

Let's move onto your new record. How did this approach influence the writing and composing of the new material for Winter Harvest?

Matt: Winter Harvest is really just a continuation of the Music du Jour project. I think we've found our strengths as a trio, and I think the tunes we chose for on this CD play to those strengths. But we're still trying to reach out and do new things, to challenge ourselves, and to not repeat what we've written before. So I'm excited to go ahead and make the next CD!

What would you say connects Winter Harvest to your previous album, and what would you say sets them most apart from each other?

Matt: Stylistically, I think this record is in line with Music du Jour. I think it reflects our influences in a way that hopefully is organic, and doesn't show up as specifically bluegrass, or specifically jazz, or anything else, but a hopefully organic combination of these things.

Winter Harvest to me is a further step in trying to bring all these influences together in creating a new expression of roots styles. I think we've grown stronger compositionally and are always playing better and better as a trio. So I think this record is set apart as a crystallization of where we are now as a trio, and that is a very different place than where we were on the previous disc.

I personally really enjoy the stylistic variety on the new album. I am curious what you were listening to at the time that may have influenced your writing?

Matt: It's hard to say, my iPod is generally on shuffle, and you never know what might come up that catches your ear and might influence some sort of conceptual idea. I can say that I think the trio has been influenced (to my ears anyway) quite a bit by modern jazz artists like EST, Brad Mehldau, Dave Douglas, etc.  And I think each of us has an undercurrent of what we've really spent the bulk of our time learning musically.

For me, it's bluegrass and "new acoustic" music. For Ross, I think it's mainly jazz, and for Eric it seems to be a huge variety of influences, as his musical path has been so incredibly diverse. I think we're all open-minded musically, and we all listen to a pretty wide variety of stuff. All those musical influences have some effect on your own musical voice, and all three of us are following our own musical paths while we travel down this path together as a trio. And we're definitely influencing each other all the time, too.
Will you be touring for Winter Harvest? Any plans of possibly returning to the east coast (maybe NYC/ Brooklyn) for a performance?

Matt: We will definitely be in the Northeast, and actually at the Jalopy Theatre in Brooklyn on March 29! We will be in the Rocky Mountain West in February and some in late April as well. Plus, the Southeast, and hopefully Northern Midwest as well. We want to go everywhere we can with the du Jour project and see what happens!

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