Greta Matassa

The Smiling Hour



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MUSIC REVIEW BY Paul Freeman, San Jose Mercury News (Interview)


Seattle-based jazz vocalist Greta Matassa's father was a visual artist, a painter. And a serious jazz buff.

"My dad and I used to stay up until three in the morning, talking about the parallels between jazz music and abstract art," Matassa tells The Daily News. "They are very similar in the spontaneity of the way they're put together. You start with a structure in a piece of music. Or a subject matter in art. And then the act itself of painting it or singing it is the point. It's not the end result, but the in-the-moment that I find so fascinating."

Her father and her scientist mother listened to jazz devotedly. "I was born in 1962, so they had a bunch of great jazz records," Matassa says. "I came of age, 14, 15 years old, in the middle of the '70s, when there was nothing on the radio but disco. I really gravitated toward my parents' record collection, because there was just more interesting stuff going on with Oscar Peterson and Frank Sinatra than what I was hearing on the radio."

Matassa, who teaches as well as performs, took a few classical voice lessons during her childhood. But it was through analyzing great jazz artists that she really learned to sing.


"I'd go home and get out the records and think, 'I wonder, if I tried to sing along with Billie Holiday -- would that be helpful?' And it was. Everything I know about music I know from singing with those people, studying them inside and out, copying them, yes, but with respect. And I advocate that my students do the same, gleaning from them anything and everything that they have to teach us."

So her teachers were artists like Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Anita O'Day and lesser known vocalists like Dakota Staton and Dutch singer Rita Reys, whose albums she discovered while scouring record shops.

Matassa had a working band formed when she was 16. As a junior, she left high school to take a performing gig in Oregon.

"I was solely interested in music, so much so that I was not doing well in school. It was obvious to my parents that music was my main focus. Mercifully, I had very forward-thinking and artistic parents. And I had this opportunity for a full-time singing job, $500 a week. This was back during a time when live music was necessary ... and was paid. I was 17. They said, 'Well, go ahead and do it. If it doesn't work out, you can always get your GED and go to college.' I took that job singing. And I've never had a straight job. So I think I made the right decision," Matassa says, laughing.

"Having raised two daughter myself, I know that it's very unusual to know at an early age what you want to do. I knew definitely what I wanted to do. I knew I was pretty good at it and that I could get better at it, if I just had the opportunity. Fortunately, the people around me -- my parents, the musicians I worked with from an early age, all were very supportive and understood that this was my education. I feel like that's one of the reasons that I'm an educator now, that there's got to be return of the investment."

Matassa has recorded many acclaimed albums, including 2009's "I Wanna Be Loved." A new one is on the way.

Matassa chooses a lot of her material from the Great American Songbook, unearthing lesser known vintage gems, as well as performing familiar numbers.

"I have a repertoire of 2,000 tunes. The classic American standards, I know inside and out, backwards. But I still enjoy singing them, because, as a jazz singer, I reinvent them every time I sing them anyway. They're kind of like old friends. But as in any relationship, old friends are great, but it's always nice to meet new ones. So I'm always on the hunt for new pieces of material to play with."

"I'm always looking for songs with really good structure. I like chord progressions that really move around, are somewhat challenging. I tend to stay away from reductive chord progressions. Melodies are not as important to me, because, as a jazz singer, I end up changing a lot of the melodies anyway. Of course, lyrics are important."

Not that Matassa always needs lyrics. She can scat up a storm.

"Jon Hendricks was the first I ever heard. I was fascinated. Ella was a huge influence. I started tracing what she was doing. I'd take it line by line and learn her scats verbatim, so I could get a feel for the vocabulary that she was using.

"And I learned to scat a lot on the bandstand, doing private parties. That first hour, where people are meeting and greeting, we're really nothing but background music. So I would turn the main speakers off. We'd play a standard like 'Days of Wine and Roses' and I'd sing the beginning and then just quietly fool around with scatting. In other words, I got paid to figure it out. I love teaching scat, because it's kind of a lost art, and I really want people to understand what it is, why it's fun."

In Redwood City, at Angelica's on Tuesday, she'll be singing and scatting with Denny Berthiaume's trio, including drummer Bill Belasco and bassist Chuck Bennett. Matassa met pianist Berthiaume while she was teaching in La Honda, at Jazz Camp West.

Knowledgeable jazz publications find Matassa to be among the best at her art. "Greta Matassa is one of America's finest singers, and stands firmly among the best in today's jazz," said Jazz Review. Earshot Jazz, which has named her "Northwest Vocalist of the Year" seven times in 15 years, declared, "Her scatting is as confident, nimble and energetic as Ella's and her phrasing is hip like Nancy Wilson's."

Tours have taken Matassa to Hawaii, Singapore, Japan and Russia. Now that

her kids are grown up, she spends as much time as possible on the road, teaching and performing. Often accompanying her is her husband, Clipper Anderson, a notable bassist. An outdoorsy person, Matassa wouldn't dream of changing her base from the Pacific Northwest to New York or Los Angeles.

"I travel all over the place. I come home and I still think, 'God, I live in the most beautiful place in the world.' And Seattle has quite a thriving jazz scene. It's the best of all worlds."

Matassa is one artist who's neither starving nor tortured. In fact, she's downright happy. "I've sung all kinds of music. I've made a living singing rock, pop. I was in a heavy metal band for a while. Living hand-to-mouth, being self-employed could be viewed as challenging. But what it did for me was build a sense of personal responsibility. You have your fingers in a bunch of different pies. It's a challenge, but I like it. To get paid for what I always wanted to do -- and get paid to teach other people to do it, as well -- I'm pretty lucky."





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