Greta Matassa
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Greta Matassa, NW Jazz Vocalist
by David Keys, Northwest Jazz Profile

DK: Greta, I was speaking with you earlier and you mentioned the fact that you really weren't concerned about the national market. Why aren't you concerned about national sales and national marketing?

GM: Well, of course you enjoy national sales, but I mean realistically, in order to do that kind of thing, you really do need to be free to tour. And I made a conscience decision twelve years ago when I had kids that, for the time being at least, I was going to limit myself to the Northwest for performances and I haven't really regretted that in any way. It's been a very rewarding career here in the Northwest and there are wonderful musicians that work out here and a wonderful record label, Origin Arts. I'm kind of spreading my duties between enjoying a jazz career and really raising a family properly.

DK: I understand that you did some rock and dance music in your youth.

GM: Well. I always loved jazz from the beginning. When I was fourteen and fifteen listening to my Dad's jazz collection, that was my first love but realistically I knew that in order to try to make a living, I was going to have to expand and try some different music styles. So initially, it was kind of a career decision that was based on monetary goals and being able to make a living at this. But ironically, I think that the experience I had in rock bands and pop bands and disco groups and all kinds of different sorts of music, has really enhanced what I can do with jazz. I have a much larger range now because of singing in rock bands six nights a week. I found the need to use falsetto in the upper range in order to have the stamina to get through anything. I don't necessarily always hear that in a lot of other jazz singers, the range. You know, I gained a great deal from that experience and I don't regret it.

DK: So when did you break through to the "other side," as far as being able to just let it fly free and not worry about the technique or the theory behind what you were doing?

GM: Oh you know, I think that it's a long process. I first started getting the opportunity to sing jazz when I was doing private parties and casuals, wedding receptions and things like that. That would be where I would meet some of the really great jazz musicians in town. During the cocktail hour, or the time in the evening when the audience is basically just sitting and talking to each other, I would experiment with the band. That was basically where I first got a chance to try out some scat singing. I figured as long as they're not attentively listening, I think I'll just experiment with this a little bit. And, I guess I over a period of about five years, I started to establish a little bit more of my own sound and really understand the basics of how to improvise and how to phrase stylistically. It was only about twelve years ago that I started to put my own bands together and since then I've been the leader of my own group which allows me to hand pick the material, and of course, hand pick the players and I'm real lucky to be able to do that.

DK: Your sound is highly informed. Did you go to school: how did you get to where you are now?

GM: Well I went straight to the source. No I didn't go to school. I learned by the same method as when I was fourteen. I just listened to records. I listened to everybody, and I sang along. I studied everything about how they got the sound they got. Their rhythmic phrasing, how they were doing it. and how they got some of the improvisational alternate melody lines that, say, Ella might do. I studied them, and I closely studied the particular timber of different voices. I kind of myopically got to the point where I would try my best to sound like the particular person I was singing along with. In this way I began to develop an understanding of the craft of my instrument. So, when the time came for me to improvise and do my own interpretation of the song, I had a very large pallet of colors to pick from in terms of sound. So, you know, going straight to the source. And when I teach (I've been teaching for about five years), the practical basis for my teaching is really for people to understand how much they can teach themselves by studying and really listening and participating, singing along with the people that they enjoy, I ask singers that come Into my studio and when we talk about their practice routine, I'll say "Okay, do you ever sing along with the CDs that you have?" They will get all bashful and they say, "Well you know I guess I kind of sing along in the shower." And I stop them right there and I say look, "that is a legitimate form of practice and you shouldn't feel belittled by it. As a form of practice, it's every bit as legitimate as going to school for it.'” And the other part of learning obviously is, you learn on the bandstand. I mean you learn from your fellow musicians and I learned much of my musicianship from the wonderful players and the very gentlemanly players that I've had a chance to work with. They have been very kind about helping me because I'm not a musician with a great deal of theoretical background. I don't read music, so everything that I do is basically ear trained, and that's been really marvelous because in some cases, there is a lot of animosity between instrumentalists and singers. Some times I think it's probably justified, but I've been grateful to have the respect of my fellow musicians.

DK: Family life. How do you handle that? Are you picking up the kids from school; do you attend recitals and games?

GM: Oh yeah. As I tell some of the people who are ambitious for me, I just smile and say, "Well. I've got the best of both worlds." I have two wonderful children and I'm definitely of the mind that you need to spend as much time with your kids as possible if you expect to have any kind of relationship with them as adults. So yeah, I'm home after school when they come home. I teach during the day while they are at school and when they come home I'm theirs for the rest of the evening. Occasionally we do workshops Tuesday evenings so there will be a bunch of musicians in here. They are definitely exposed to an eclectic musical experience. I took them with me when I did Teatro Zinzanni for a couple of weeks and they got to see that. They've seen me work with a ballet so they've gotten their share of ballerinas, which of course made them extremely happy. They come to a lot of my concerts. They're somewhat musical themselves, but I certainly don't push anything. I'm looking and seeing what kind of talents and interests they acquire. But yeah, I'm a soccer mom as well. I have what Diana Krall doesn't have right now and I don't mean to be pompous about it, but I have a family, and I have a great career that's widely varied and interesting, so I wouldn't change a thing right now.

DK: About your voice, have you ever run into any vocal problems from working so many nights a week where your voice has been strained?

GM: When I was doing heavy metal years ago, and this was quite a few years ago obviously, I had black hair [laughing] ridiculous looking, yeah, I did strain my voice. I didn't end up with nodes or anything like that but I did put a strain on it. We were working regularly on week nights. I think we were working about four nights a week and we were involved in a recording project at the same time. I ended up coming down with mono right in the middle of this album project and it just put me right on my back. So I had to abandon the project, and the band. I just had to basically go on vocal rest for two or three months. And then after that, I wanted a break from singing so many nights and that was how I ended up doing private parties and casuals, which ultimately led to me meeting the jazz musicians that I always wanted to work with anyway. So everything happens for a reason. Since then, I haven't any problems. I do have a regular practice regimen and warm up methods, and like I said, singing along with, I mean, Ella's in my house every day, Frank's in my house every day, as are Carmen McRae and Billie Holiday. I sing two or three hours a day, so when I go out to a performance I'm in shape. And if for some reason I don't do that, I can tell. l can definitely tell at a performance and most of the musicians, I know, are in agreement. There's just no replacement for daily practice: just being physically able to have your instrument respond the way you want it to.

DK: Do you also do any physical exercise?

GM: I put something together because obviously being a busy person, I multi-task as much as possible. I'll get up in the morning and while I'm cleaning the house I'll be singing along with Barbara Streisand or somebody to kind of open up my upper range. And then I developed a workout routine a couple of years ago. People will laugh, but it works. I've got free weights and basically I'll sing along with someone like Frank Sinatra while doing aerobic dance moves that are in the rhythm of the piece. Work arms. legs. the whole bit and it's great for breath control because if you try to sing while you're doing arms and legs, free weights and things, you're really going to understand breath control. So yeah, I do that everyday and it's a great workout.

DK: You're doing such a wide variety of work. I mean the Ballet, the SRJO, SWOJO, and big bands. Do you ever find that you are out of your depth? I mean just think about it. Is it ever intimidating?

GM: I'll tell you what was slightly intimidating although it was so much fun I quickly got over it. I got asked a few years ago to do Kurt Weil's Seven Deadly Sins with the Pacific Northwest Ballet and I'm not a theater person. The last time I did musical theater was in high school. There were no lines of dialogue in this piece but I basically had to become a character and I would share the main lead with the prima ballerina. So I had to become a character. It was German cabaret music so it was slightly out of my element. So at first, the singing was never a problem. I love that music, so I knew that I could do it. But the idea of remembering stage choreography and where to go and how to move was something different. See, I have a tendency as a jazz musician to tap my foot whenever I hear any music, move in rhythm and that is not what they were really looking for in that performance. I had to be a character. So I'd be walking around the stage tapping my foot. And remembering the choreography was extremely important, only in the fact that there were extremely expensive ballerinas twirling all around me. One wrong step and I could hurt somebody. That would be the only gig that I think was slightly out of my element. And then I went straight from that to Teatro Zinzanni which is basically the same sort of thing. It's high cabaret and, you know, big fun.

DK: You're great at being you and that's hard to come by.

GM: I discovered at least ten or twelve years ago that the easiest thing for me to do was not to pose as some svelte, sophisticated, very suave person because it's not the way I am. You know, I'm kind of silly, I'm kind of witty. I enjoy quipping with the audience and so if I try to come on like I'm some kind of sexy, extremely urbane person, it looks ridiculous. I think it's much more helpful and I do think it's important that jazz musicians interplay with the audience. That's a huge pet peeve with me. One of the things that I've enjoyed doing for the last five years is the idea of letting an audience call tunes for me. I'll take requests all evening because not only is it fun, it's challenging and they get a chance to really see what jazz is like because none of it is rehearsed and obviously spontaneous. But the other thing about it is that it allows me to have some reason to have dialogue with the audience. A lot of times when you're on stage, you're thinking, well, how am I going to introduce this song? Well this is a song by Cole Porter and it's very near and dear to my heart, you know. If someone in the audience says, "Oh, do Lady Is A Tramp" then I can make some kind of comment about it or whatever. It involves them in the performance in a much more tangible way than if I came out with a specific set of music that I had pre-planned. And I do obviously want to incorporate some of this new music that we are recording into performances and I will be doing that. I'll always do this audience involvement with requests. It's just fun.

DK: Okay. How many songs do you have committed to memory?

GM: It's funny that you should ask that. I just printed out a song list for Mimi Fox because we're trying to figure out some tunes that we're going to do and the song list is six pages long. I'm thinking probably around two thousand.

DK: Really!

GM: Yeah. It's a lot of tunes. You know if you sing along with recordings everyday, and I'm forty-two years old and I've been doing it since I was fourteen, that's a lot of songs. I tell people when they say, "Well how do you remember all these songs?" I say, "Well you know, my tongue remembers the words faster than I do intellectually. It's almost a physical response to a melody. I’ll hear it and then boom, I just know what it is."

DK: So you have a tactile memory the same as an instrumentalist?

GM: Right.

DK: That's interesting.

GM: Well, the thing that really is amazing and I would really like to emphasize this. One of the other imperative things and very impressive things about doing something where you're taking the spontaneous requests from the audience is that you have to have musicians around you that are as capable as I am to honor those requests. You never know what you're going to get from people and with using people like Darin Clendenin. Clipper Andersen, Mark Ivester or Randy Halberstadt, these guys. They know just as large a body of work as I do, if not more. And not only that, they can turn around and play it in whatever key I call out. I don't have sheet music for all of this. This is just completely relying on their musical background as well. It is pretty impressive.

DK: About the new recording, do you have a name for the project yet?

GM: You know I don't, I was thinking about it because after you called I wrote down some of the titles of the tunes and the reason I chose those particular songs is that they are not commonly done. I thought of them as being gems. I thought of Greta's Gems or something like that. I don't know what I'm going to call it but I'm doing a kind of quieter album. It's the first album I've done in a studio in twelve years. The last three have been live recordings. It's a little on the mellow side. They're really just some beautiful ballads. There are a couple of up-tempo tunes but what I like about them is that these songs haven't been heard in a while. Not by the general public.

DK: Name some of them.

GM: There's a tune called 'Listen Little Girl' that Ruth Price recorded in the 60's. I've never heard anybody do this tune but it's just gorgeous. 'The Man With The Horn,' an old Anita O'Day classic I hardly ever hear anybody do. 'Inside A Silent Tear,' from Blossom Dearie, and there is a wonderful composer named Curtis Lewis who wrote 'All Night Long' and he wrote 'Old Country.' And there's a ballad by Shirley Horn called 'He's Gone Again,' and it's just beautiful. Every time I do this tune, people will come up and ask me where it came from. So you know it's a lot of fun to be in the studio where you can exercise a little more creative control and just have a chance to lay these beautiful tunes down. And the guys, Clipper Anderson, Darin Clendenin, Mark Ivester, Tom Marriott and Rich Cole, they laid down such beautiful tracks. It's going to be so much fun when we get it finished.

DK: When is this project due to hit the street?

GM: I'm visualizing probably July. We have some over-dubs to do. It still needs to be mixed and mastered and then manufactured.

DK: What do you think about American Idol?

GM: [Laughing] Oh God, don't get me going.

DK: No, let's get you going.

GM: For one thing, I've never enjoyed the idea of competition in the arts. Just on the face of it, I think it's an arbitrary kind of thing and that's giving it the credit that possibly it is a legitimate competition. From what I've seen it's part of a recent phenomenon that I find very disheartening with the American public in general and that is this "Reality TV" thing. I've never seen anything that troubles me more in terms of entertainment. The idea of watching somebody get openly humiliated and you know that's what we're watching for. And to watch that kind of thing happen, it's the fascination of the abomination. It's like I can't look away from an accident scene and it has nothing to do with music. I find it extremely frustrating. I have students that, of course, watch it. They'll ask me and I'll tell them,"I just don't think that this is legitimate music." There is competition in music, in the business of music particularly, but having open competitions where there's this kind of oneupmanship and the opportunity for some complete asshole to humiliate you in front of millions of people. I don't know who to blame. The person that volunteered to let this happen to themselves or the American public who seems to endorse it, or the idiot that's reaming them a new one. I don't understand it at all and the only thing that I can do in protest is just not watch it. Occasionally when I see it I only have to watch for thirty seconds to find out how embarrassing it is. I've got nothing against pop music, but this is a different forum. This is a chance for us to watch somebody make a fool of themselves, and if that qualifies for entertainment then bring back the gladiators and let's just get it over with. I would love to see this "Reality TV" thing go away.

DK: Isn't that interesting how we think that we are so evolved and so sophisticated but people back in the 40's and 50's when bebop came in, people were listening to highly complex harmonies and ideas.

GM: Abstract ideas. Back when Picasso mattered.

DK: Right! So improvise a good goodbye for this interview.

GM: [Laughing] How about Count Basie's "Blink blink-blink."



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