I’ve had the good fortune to talk to David Matthews a few times over the last couple of years. I’ve also started going through Leonard Feather’s scrapbooks and hope to get to Feather’s archive later this year to review Super-8 and mini-tape recordings. One of the articles I came across in a Feather scrapbook was this 1987 interview that appeared in the June 28th edition of the Los Angeles Times.

If you only know David Matthews from his late-period CTI/KUDU arrangements and recordings, or perhaps his earlier work with James Brown, you don’t know Dave. Dave is still living, playing, and performing in Japan. In this article, Feather and Matthews talk about Matthews’ early forays to Japan post working for Creed Taylor.

(This article was written by Leonard Feather, published in the LA Times Sunday, June 28th 1987 on Page-66-67. It is reproduced here in full with no edits except formatting.)

NEW YORK— David Matthews, a busy and versatile New York-based pianist and arranger, returned here recently from a triumphant tour of Japan—his second in a year—leading his own group.

This in itself is hardly stop-the-presses news. Almost daily, some jazz musician or group returns from a successful tour of Japan, which generally is acknowledged as the world’s No. 2—or No. 1—jazz country. What does seem remarkable about Matthews’ trip is that his group is affectionately known as the MJQ, though it bears no relationship to the Modern Jazz Quartet.

The Manhattan Jazz Quintet, to give it its proper name, is remarkable for more than its initials. Organized in Manhattan by a group of Manhattan-based musicians whom Matthews had come to know, this group has never appeared in Manhattan, nor anywhere else in the United States. It is famous, however, in Japan. Photos, articles, and record reviews appear almost monthly in Tokyo’s Swing Journal, dedicated to the leader, the sidemen, and their various activities.

The very existence of this band is due to the initiative of a Japanese journalist and a Japanese record producer. Matthews said this unique bunch of hard boppers came into existence as a unit in an unusual way.

“I’ve had a deal for several years as a producer for the Japanese King Record Co.,” he said. “Most of what I was making for them consisted of fusion sessions. This was going along very well, but three years ago, Yasuki Nakayama, the editor of Swing Journal, decided that the jazz scene over there had become a bit stagnant.

“He felt something fresh and uncompromising was needed— a less self-conscious and less electronic kind of music that would go back to the bop roots. He communicated these ideas to someone at King Records in Tokyo, who then passed the thought along to me with the suggestion that I try organizing a band for a straight-ahead swinging record.”

“I put this group together, not expecting too much; records like this might expect to sell under 10,000 copies over there. But to everyone’s astonishment, we became the hottest band in Japan.”

The original members of the Manhattan Jazz Quintet were Matthews, piano and arranger; Lew Soloff, trumpet; George Young, tenor sax; Steve Gadd, drums, and Charnett Moffett, then 17, on bass (since replaced by Eddie Gomez).

Soloff and Young, like Matthews, have solid reputations as studio players. Soloff came to prominence playing with Blood, Sweat & Tears from 1968-73, later working in such name bands as Thad Jones/Mel Lewis and Gil Evans. Young, a Philadelphian, has been prominent in pop circles for more than 20 years and is regarded as a nonpareil all-around woodwind player. He had toured Japan with Dave Grusin and recorded countless pop sessions as well as occasional jazz dates with Red Rodney and others.

“These men are more than studio players,” said Matthews. “They’re first-rate jazz musicians who love to play this music any time they have a chance.”

Gomez and Gadd met six years ago on a Chick Corea session and have gigged together often since then, often alongside such fellow New York reliables as Richard Tee and Cornell Dupree. Gadd, despite a fusion and rock image, has worked in every conceivable setting and is arguably the most adaptable drummer on the contemporary scene. Gomez, born in Puerto Rico and an alumnus of the Newport Youth Band in the late 1950s, worked with Marian McPartland, Paul Bley and Lee Konitz but is best known for his decade-long association with the late pianist Bill Evans.

Leading a jazz group of this uncompromising kind was a special experience for Matthews. Though he had worked in his early years with a jazz-oriented band that toured Europe in the late 1960s, most of his later credits involved pop and fusion ventures.

Born in 1942 in Sonora, Ky., Matthews earned his music degree at the University of Cincinnati Conservatory. After a stint as arranger for James Brown, he settled in New York in 1974 and had a close association with one of the busiest record producers of the day, Creed Taylor, whose CTI Records was then riding high. He worked on dates with Nina Simone, Ron Carter, George Benson, Art Farmer and Hank Crawford, as well as on sessions for other companies with pop stars from Paul McCartney to Frank Sinatra.

What makes this particular MJQ work so well, at least for the Japanese? Among other virtues, it has benefited from exceptionally fine sound quality on its compact disc releases (and CDs, of course, were hot in Japan before they invaded this country). Second, it has a well-balanced, expertly performed repertoire of jazz standards and Matthews originals. On the first CD (now available here on ProJazz CDJ 602) were “Summertime,” Miles Davis’ “Milestones,” Sonny Rollins’ “Airegin” and “My Favorite Things.” The second included Monk’s “’Round Midnight” and five other cuts; on the third were Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation,” Matthews’ “Mood Piece,” “Autumn Leaves” and a Brazilian bossa nova.

Nothing exceptionally adventurous, in short, but everything in its place and nothing to offend ears that were tired of synthesizers and electric drums.

The group recorded a live set (CDJ 637) during its first tour of Japan in April of last year, playing longer versions of some numbers from the earlier sets. By this time, thanks to the flood of Swing Journal publicity, the band had become hotter than ever and had won a series of awards.

“In January of 1985,” says Matthews, “we won the Swing Journal Gold Disc award with our first album. A year later we won the Best CD prize, which was very important because, by now, CDs are outselling LPs by 60 to 40. Next, we won in both the LP and CD divisions of their readers’ poll; I also won a producer’s award for four different albums, including our own ‘My Funny Valentine’ and the ‘Live at Roppongi’ set. For a group to win as many awards as we did is unheard of in Japan. I guess we had become such a powerful force that they had to acknowledge us.”

Success breeds success: During the quintet’s first Japanese tour, it was suggested that Matthews record a jazz trio album. This was done last July in New York, with Michael Moore on bass and Dave Weckl on drums. A month later, the Tokyo Union Big Band, one of Japan’s most popular legatees of the swing tradition, recorded “Keeping Count,” with Matthews contributing all the arrangements for a set of Basie-related tunes.

By now, the quintet is such a fait accompli in Japan that its continuation as a recording unit seems assured. A fourth studio album, “The Sidewinder’’ (named for a 1965 hit by trumpeter Lee Morgan), has been issued in Japan and will be on the U.S. market soon.

After all this excitement, one might well ask, why has this five-man sensation, named after its home turf, never appeared here?

“Well, you know, we can’t get a job until somebody wants us. However, one club in town, Sweet Basil, did offer us a date last year but we weren’t all able to get together. When we do play in New York, that will be the place; however, all five of us have our separate commitments, so it may be difficult to work things out.”

And what do his fans in Japan say when Matthews tells them that aside from the records and the Japanese tours, this group doesn’t really exist?

Matthews smiled. “I’m sure they would be incredulous but, to be honest, I’ve never told them. The question simply hasn’t come up.”

— ENDS —

Footnote: according to adverts on the same page. Ray Barreto was appearing at the Ford Theatre, Cahuenga and Hollywood Freeways on July 17th; You could get a room at the Sheraton in University City, for $85 per room per night, subject to availability through September 15,1987. The lowest cost currently advertised for a room is $276.

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