The life of a professional musician is rarely an easy one. Unfortunately, the classic stereotype of the starving artist is often an accurate representation of the financial struggles that many artists face in today’s society. When professional drummer and trombone player Matt Smith was asked how he and his jazz band, The Matt Smith Neu Jazz Trio, were able to fund a tour up the West Coast, he said, “Sleep on floors. Buy a big loaf of bread, a big tub of peanut butter, and a big tub of jelly.”
Matt Smith and his band mates obviously aren’t making much money off of their musical endeavors, but like many others, their strong passion for what they do drives them to take the hard road anyways.
On Wednesday afternoon, The Matt Smith Neu Jazz Trio, a San Diego-based modern jazz band, played a small show at the Sonoma State University Green Music Center for the music department’s weekly jazz forum class. Jazz forum is a required class for all jazz studies majors at Sonoma State, where different guest musicians come in every week to perform and talk about their lives as musicians. These weekly performances are also open to the public for free.
At first glance, The Matt Smith Neu Jazz Trio looks more like a rock band than any sort of jazz project. Consisting of an electric guitarist, a bassist and a drummer, the only part of this lineup that deviates from that of a traditional rock band, is the fact that the bassist plays an upright bass rather than an electric bass. Although they may look like a normal rock band at first, the performance that they gave demonstrated otherwise.
The Matt Smith Neu Jazz Trio opened with a song that was written by the guitarist. It began with what sounded like diminished guitar chords being arpeggiated in a tangible, yet somewhat abstract chord progression. After running through this progression alone several times, the guitarist was joined by the rest of the band, and the song escalated into a jazz fusion jam that had the attitude of rock and roll, but the complexity and virtuosity of jazz. The trio stayed in metronomic 4/4 time for the majority of the song, but there were several breaks where any semblance of rhythm was temporarily lost in a torrent of solos or drum fills, only to lock back into place moments later.
The next song that they played was written by the bass player, and thus began with an astonishing bass solo that spanned several minutes. For the first part of the solo, the bassist was playing with chords, a practice that is rather unusual for the instrument. After strumming each chord, while the notes were still resonating, he would quickly move his hand up and down the neck to create pitch inflection by bending the notes. This added a strange, middle-eastern tinge to the music. As the solo began to pick up speed, the bassist abandoned chords and instead started running up and down scales at an unbelievable pace. After sufficiently blowing audience’s minds, he settled into a simplistic bass groove that he repeated once alone, and then again as the rest of the band came in to join him. This was one of the tightest and most satisfying transitions of their performance. It was seamless. From there, the song turned into a fast and fiery tune that kept everyone on the edge of their seats. Towards the end of the song, it began to mutate into polyrhythmic pandemonium with Smith on drums, soloing loudly and explosively while dropping bombs on the bass drum at the least expected times.
The final song the Matt Smith Neu Jazz Trio played was an original written by Smith. This time the song began with an insanely fast and relentless drum solo that practically shook the room. Smith then dropped from the loud solo into an extremely quiet and restrained portion of the song with all three members playing softly together. The sudden shift from loud to quiet was a great use of dynamics. From there the song gradually began to build again and eventually the audience was treated to another breathtaking bass solo that inspired applause in the middle of the song. The song ended by changing into a skittering, tribal-sounding hoedown where the guitarist was playing muted harmonics, and the drummer was playing syncopated rim clicks and some other unidentifiable tinny sounding percussion instrument. This strange change of direction invoked feelings of dancing wildly around a fire while banging pots and pans. It was very primal.
After finishing their third song, the band put down their instruments and opened the floor for the discussion portion of their presentation. But before they could begin talking about their experiences as professional musicians, one dumbfounded audience member asked, “Are you all even human?” Smith smiled modestly and said, “Yes. The last time I checked I still am.” The question of whether or not he was being truthful is likely still weighing on the minds of those who attended the performance.