Greta Matassa: In the Moment
Firey vocalist to sing the lead in PNB's "Seven Deadly Sins"
by Rhona Baron, JazzSteps
Vocalist Greta Matassa is a powerful and prominent voice in the Northwest jazz scene. Her vocal mastery allows her to come across husky, girlish, crisp or jaded. Gretas equal mastery of her sometimes-surprising songlist continues to set her apart as a jazz artist. Restless to explore music from an early age, Greta quit high school in the 70s to begin performing. Staying diverse and determined to make a living as a vocalist she has performed with organizations like the Pacific Northwest Ballet and the Spectrum Dance Theater. In 1991, Greta Matassa recorded her first CD, titled Got A Song That I Sing. Her second, If The Moon Turns Green was released in 1994. Last June, a live recording at Bakes Place in Redmond provided the material for Gretas latest release on Origin Records, All This and Heaven Too. All three of Gretas recordings are currently available at JazzSteps.com.
Greta, tell us about your first gigs and that experimental time of discovering your voice.
Well, I knew when I was a kid I wanted to sing professionally. So I actually quit school and went out on the road with a band when I was about 18. I learned to do live performance in a variety of different settings. I was in Top 40 bands, lounge bands, rock bands. I even did a stint in a heavy metal band, but jazz was what I always loved to do the most. Thats where I feel most at home. I came from an artistically liberal family that just sort of encouraged whatever talents you seemed to show.
Its great that your family was supportive of your artistic interests which makes sense in that you father was a visual artist. Do you think the arts are connected, transcending medium? I mean, how would you describe jazz relating to say, painting?
I love the in-the-moment experimentation of jazz as opposed to other forms of music. To me it seems very much akin to the way abstract painting is done with the abstraction of an existing structure. You start with a subject matter then after a while the structure itself is not important. Its the improvisation built off the structure that becomes interesting. The same thing applies in very good jazz.
Youre a very powerful singer. In fact youve been called fearless in your approach. Im wondering what it feels like to be in a live club like Bakes Place, where you made your most recent recording, putting yourself into a song. For instance, on the title track, All This and Heaven Too, you begin with vocal improv and build from there
Well, in that particular situation, we had spent enough time with the tune to become comfortable. So I get into a zone, where, aside from the obvious signposts along the way that I know I needed to accomplish, I tend to just sort of trip out. I mean, to be honest, I am not consciously thinking about my pitch needing to be here, my rhythm needing to be there. People ask me what Im thinking about when I scat sing and I realize Im not thinking about anything! I know the next chord is coming and I have a variety of musical options, but sometimes it goes by so fast that if I stopped to think about everything I was doing I wouldnt be able to do it.
Do you have a more intellectual or physical approach to music?
I think its both. Theres a physical approach accomplished by a lot of practice so that now Im able to count on my instrument to do what I want it to do. Thats the real trick. Its the same with great pianists. They have an intellectual understanding of the music and a physical understanding of how to make their hands accomplish what they are thinking of. When both can work together at the same time theyre almost focusing away from it to let it happen.
Jazz has a reputation for being a smart music. Does a person have to be smart or intellectual to sing or play jazz?
No, I think it depends on the jazz. Maybe not everyone would appreciate Thelonius Monk but they could dig Count Basie. A lot of my favorite music is really straight swing stuff. I just think people should not be afraid. I see a lot of people scared off by the term jazz. They feel its an elitist form of music. And it really isn't. The more you listen the more you understand and you might want to get into some abstract forms of jazz. But if you started with some pretty mainstream stuff, its pretty easy to dig.
Lets talk more about your latest CD. We talked about your approach to the title cut, All This and Heaven Too. Can you tell us how that one got on the album?
Well, its a funny story. That tune has a melody line that horn players tend to quote from. As soloists are improvising, theyll borrow from lots of different pop songs and jazz songs. So in a given solo you may hear them quote from Sweet Georgia Brown or Stardust. Well, they had been quoting this particular melody (I heard it all the time) but a lot of them, if you ask them, have no idea what the song is titled. They just have the melody in their head. Well, there is a Chris Connor version of the tune from the 50s, but other than that, I am not aware of another recording. So I brought the tune to rehearsal and we started playing it and all the guys go God, thats where that tune came from. Just based on that we decided to go with it. Randy Halberstadt did a very nice arrangement and I feel it explores the areas I like: scat, and (chuckles) it takes off and leaves the ground after a while.
On your most recent release, theres a tune called Ruby that is very poignant. Can you tell us about that song?
Ray Charles recorded Ruby in the 50s. Originally it was a love song a man sings to a woman. I wasnt sure how to make the song work until I thought about making myself the third person in a triangle and just switching a few lyrics around to see what happens. I hardly ever hear anybody do that tune. At least for the moment, I think I have it to myself.
How important is being an historian in terms of the songs you choose to sing and record?
I hate to see neglected gems. There are plenty of great tunes out there that are done into the ground. Although they are wonderful tunes I dont necessarily want to do them again. Its nice to keep it fresh. You know the Ella Fitzgerald Songbook series was really great for that. She covered a series of eight different popular American composers recording their big hits, but also quite a few obscure tunes. With each recording project I try to get at least a handful of tunes that people havent heard for a while.
You did a show that featured not only the songs of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, but also the way they sang them.
Yeah, I learned to sing by singing along with Ella, Billie, Dinah and Sarah. I wasnt formally trained, I mean I didnt study with a teacherother than those great singers. Years later I wanted to do a tribute to who I felt were my teachers. Billie and Ella were two of the top. But the real fun part was including bio info and bringing jazz into the theater market. It ended up being a whole different kind of experience.
Another unusual twist on your singing is working with the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Tell us about that.
Actually, I started doing a show in 1989 with them that they would resurrect about every two years. It was called Zirkus Weill. Its a piece of music using various Kurt Weill compositions. Hes a German composer who wrote My Ship and September Songsome really beautiful standards, but a lot of them tend to be very dark. I mean I always picture Marlene Dietrich interpreting these songs. The ballet is going to be doing a production in June of Kurt Weills play the Seven Deadly Sins. I am going to be cast in that as Anna, the lead. [The world premiere of PNBs Seven Deadly Sins runs May 30 through June 8.]
Are you preparing your pliés?
No, (laughs) there will be no dancing for me. The performances are the last weekend of May and the first weekend in June. Im not even sure if Ill be on stage. It has yet to be choreographed but theyre fitting me for a costume. I am excited to do it because its a really a departure from jazz, but to a form a music that is equally fun.
Sounds like a great show. What else is up with you?
Well, I just reissued my first two CDs in the last couple months. They had sold out and I never got around to reissuing them until now. You know, I perform regularly in the Seattle area but Im starting to get out a little more on some tours this summer and fall so I should be all over the area. Im also doing a DVD/CD project to be recorded live at Bakes Place at the end of August!
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