Greta Matassa has made choices in her career that have sacrificed some visibility in exchange for lifestyle. Yet the Seattle based vocal artist has established herself firmly as one of America's finest singers, and one of the best that jazz has to offer in the new century. To this point, the jazz public at large had not heard from Matassa in 5 years, since her last solo release for Resonance Records, "I Wanna Be Loved" (Resonance, 2014).
With Portrait (Origin, 2019), Matassa explores the best music she has performed in the past decade with her working quintet that includes pianist Darin Clendenin, bassist Clipper Anderson, saxophonist Alexey Nikolaev and drummer Mark Ivester. The entire album plays like a set they might perform one evening in an intimate setting. There is a beautiful chemistry illustrated broadly in the intricacies of the musical interaction, and effortless sense of swing from piece to piece.
Opening with Michel LeGrand's "Pieces of Dreams," the listener hears immediate impressions of a long tenured band, with the scorching solo of Nikolaev weaving its way through the elegant comping of Clendenin, and the one mind tamdem of Anderson and Ivester. It is a melody perfect to highlight the cadence of Matassa's innovative approach, her amazing sense of tonality and range, and deep connection with the blues.
Innocently sequestered between melodies composed by the likes of Ellington and LeGrand is a Bob Dylan jewel, "To Make You Feel My Love." Matassa switches gears to present this soulful rendition, giving the impression that this tune's intimate setting may well be in Detroit. In short, the opening two numbers clearly establish not only Matassa's versatile skill set, but her willingness to go deep into a melody with a musician's mind. Her instrument has always been unquestionably top tier, her ability to interpret within the mood and emotive qualities of a tune second to none.
Why shouldn't one of the finest voices in jazz perform one of the genre's most beautiful and memorable melodies? With "Prelude to a Kiss" Matassa reveals her perfect pitch, the enabler that allows her to journey outside of a melody with the insight of a composer in spontaneous motion. Pianist Clendenin delivers an elegant solo, and the perfect phrasing to allow Matassa's impeccable articulation of the lyrics tell the story, and establish the vibe of the Ellington classic.
"If You Never Fall In Love With Me," features Matassa and Nikolaev in a lively exchange with voice playing counterpoint to tenor in horn-like fashion. Matassa's abilities to solo without words is more akin to a fine horn player than a practitioner of more traditional scat.
"Beat of My Heart" is a playful tune lyrically delivered in rapid fire articulation. Matassa delivers a scintillating, hard-swinging solo. Her work on this tune is representative of her artistry, of the immaculate musicianship she employs, that which has been a constant on stage and in the studio over her career that now spans more than a quarter century.
"Gone With The Wind" begins with Matassa and bassist Anderson in tandem. The band enters the fray swinging gently with Clendenin's tasteful harmony setting things in motion. Choosing to record this album with her standard quintet that she has mainly performed with over the past decade shows its true colors on this piece. The chemistry and comfort level achieved is that which is achieved over time, over countless hours on stage and in rehearsal. In this sense, Portrait is the truest recording Matassa has made in her career in terms of being representative of her time as a working musician, as part of a working band.
The cover of the CD features a portrait of Matassa's mother, painted by her late father. Matassa alludes to conversations about jazz and art around the kitchen table at 3 AM, about learning to understand the parallels between jazz improvisation and abstract expressionism. This album bears the imprint of familial love, whether it be that of her father, or that of the kinship that has bonded her band together over a significant stretch of time. Either way, Portrait is a gathering point for Matassa's sheer artistry.