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Even among the great musicians who live in D.C., Tarus Mateen qualifies as a heavyweight. A native of Bakersfield, Calif., Mateen was living in Atlanta when he was invited to work for two weeks in New York with Art Blakey; he later joined the bands of singer Betty Carter—-one of jazz’s great training grounds—-trumpeter Marlon Jordan, and saxophonist Greg Osby. The latter’s rhythm section also included pianist Jason Moran and drummer Nasheet Waits. That rhythm section soon became the Jason Moran Bandwagon, which has been one of the major jazz piano trios ever since.
Now living in D.C., Mateen leads a band, West Afro East, that opens for Matana Roberts at the Fridge on Saturday night. He spoke to Arts Desk about the places he’s been, the space he’s carved for himself in D.C., and how our musicians stand against those he came up with.
WCP: You were at the top of your game in New York—-and then in 2005, you left. What brought you to D.C.?
Tarus Mateen: At the time, in New York, I was closing up shop with a production partner of mine. With him, I learned how to make records, ready-for-the-radio type stuff. My brother lived in Philly, and my son was down there and nephews, and they were producing too. And I said, “Let me just get down to Philly and see what happens; it’s close enough to New York.” So I moved to South Philly, not realizing that South Philly is the hardest area in Philadelphia. It’s like moving right into Trinidad here, or into New York back in the ’80s. And there just wasn’t a lot of places to play in Philly.
So I came to D.C.—-at the time I was courting my now-wife, who’s from Philly—-and I found D.C. way more happening. Way more places to play, and everybody was working and there was no problem. “We’re working! That’s what we do here!” Whereas in Philly you’re waiting for the phone to ring, hoping there’s gonna be gigs. So that was one of the biggest reasons I came to D.C.
And the musicians here were, like, open arms. It was like, “You’re gonna be living in D.C.? Well we’ll keep you working! And we wanna study with you.” I was like, well cool. Let me come to D.C. And I liked it a lot, the way they were fixing up the neighborhoods and stuff; they were fixing up Brooklyn, where I was living in New York, too, but I needed space. You need space to write music, man.
Did the music itself figure into you coming to D.C.?
Well, I wasn’t thinking about it in terms of Duke Ellington being here with all his energy and stuff; that didn’t come up until later. D.C. has a very deep history with the music, you know? But I was just trying to come here and bring the energy that I had acquired from all of the elders I worked with, keep passing the light from this torch, you know? I felt that D.C. needed to have somebody physical around, all these younger musicians who hadn’t had any bosses, which is so important with the music and the history of how it’s passed around. You know, that it’s not about what you learned in school, but it’s more whose band were you in? Whose books of music did you learn to allow you to be where you are in presenting your music? I could tell them what Freddie Hubbard said, or what Milt Jackson said, or what Eddie Harris said—-everyone I’ve worked with. I could just reiterate to them the things that they had told me.
So you’re an elder in that sense!
Right, exactly. I’m still young , but when we’re talking about someone who’s 23, 24, well, my son is 27! So they really are, really looking up. I started thinking about, well how old was Larry Gales, the bass player with Monk, when I was hanging out with him at 23? Was he 20 years older than me or 30?
The people that I was playing with and the style of music that I was playing is completely different from the language that has developed from being in [Jason Moran’s] Bandwagon. So when I’m playing upright bass, it’s really coming from the old way, all the way down to I don’t want to use an amplifier, I wanna use a natural wood sound. But I lost my upright in Hurricane Sandy, in [drummer] Nasheet Waits’ studio. He lost everything, and my bass is one of the things, but that’s nothing compared to what he lost. But that’s the main reason I don’t play an upright, is that I don’t have one anymore.
Well, maybe it’s because you aren’t playing an upright, but since you’re talking about the language you’ve developed with Bandwagon, I have to say that the language I hear is very informed by the funk and reggae you grew up with.
Oh, yeah. If I’m playing on a gig, I’m coming out of a straight 4/4 approach. There’s nothing tricky about it. But it doesn’t sound like 4/4 to the drummers. And I’m telling them, “I’m not doing anything to confuse you, I’m not about ‘how slick can I be so that I’m so slick that they can’t play.'” I’m doing something naturally, the way that I hear it, and it’s coming out of my foundation in funk and reggae.
But I think that the way jazz has been developed lately, people are looking for it to be this syncopated—-is that in 9/8? Is that in 17? What time signature is that? I’m playing 4/4, it’s just where I’m putting my accents at. It throws a lot of younger musicians off, and I think it’s because they hear it and go immediately to the records they heard coming up, and those are records that have different time signatures and stuff, in the interest of wanting to be slick.
What are your impressions of the musicianship in D.C.?
Everyone knows their instrument, which is a great thing. But what I have found is that the language that goes along with playing this music, that’s the thing that’s lacking the most. You might have guys who know a little bit well, like one dialect in the language. It would be like, in Nigeria, you have all these dialects, and each person speaks the dialect they grew up with very well, but then they know the dialect of their mother and their friends. Here, on the music scene, a lot of the musicians here have not been very versed in the original language of the music, because of how they came in, and where the music was when they came in.
So there’s a lot of the straight-eighth type of songs that were being written, but not a lot showing them where the swing beat is at. D.C. is a city of drummers, and they’re the ones actually making or breaking a gig that a person might be on. The drums can sound great, but there might be something in the language that makes them sound settled, and it’s only because they haven’t learned the language well. That’s what I kind of find. When I came up in New York, all the drummers, you’d go to their house and they knew how to play, “This is how Elvin Jones does it. This is how Art Blakey does it. This is how Ed Thigpen does it.” They can go down the list and sound very convincing in how this or that drummer approached playing swing. I haven’t run across any drummers here in D.C. who have that kind of ability, or did that kind of homework. I think the reason is that there aren’t a lot of those drummers who are still alive. When people were around, the younger drummers couldn’t sound like those people who were still alive; they had to come up with “how can I sound?” Now drummers aren’t thinking about how they can sound, but what can they play, how fast, how loud can they play.
I’m surprised to hear you refer to D.C. as a city of drummers; I’ve always thought of it as a city of bassists.
Really? The reason I say drummers is because every drummer here has come through the go-go music. In terms of competitiveness on the instrument, this is a drummer’s city. Whether they’re playing jazz now or not. For me Philly was the bass-player city. But then D.C. does have a legacy of bass players, but not all of them are bass players of the highest ilk. Keter Betts and Butch Warren are really the ones. I don’t know that you’d put the others around here in Keter Betts’ ilk of playing.
So what will we be seeing at the Fridge on Saturday? What are you doing, and who are you doing it with?
Oh, man, so this group is called West Afro East, and it’s comprised of a balafon player named Uasus and Amadou Kouyate on djembe. And I’m using Warren Tre Crudup on drums. We’re gonna be doing more of an Afro-Cuban, Malian, jazz mix. It’s only jazz because we’ll all solo. It’s fun, man—-it’s a dancing vibe music, and very reflective and meditative too. It has this chanting, mantra vigor about it, coming from a Sufi domain. Every Sunday we’re doing that now, on the second floor of Marrakesh at 9 p.m. It’s a club called Aura. It’s really fun, and exciting.