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Will Matthews: Keepin’ Freddie’s Legacy Alive with The Basie Orchestra



Welcome to Jazz Guitar Today! New contributor and jazz guitarist Wayne Goins interviews guitarist and composer, Will Matthews.

JGT: How are you doing during this COVID epidemic? How has it affected your regular routine? 

I’m actually doing well considering the pandemic and the effects it has had all over the country, but where it affects me the most is having the ability to travel, tour and perform live for an audience. Mainly, I have been doing live streaming performances with no audience, and some virtual performances in the Zoom format, as well as teaching guitar students online. The live performances with an audience is what I miss the most.

Will Matthews Photo credit: Leonardo Najluf

JGT: When and how did you join the Basie Orchestra?

I joined the Basie Orchestra January 15, 1996. It happened that my best friend—trombonist Tim Williams—had been subbing in the Basie Orchestra and called me to let me know that the guitarist at that time, Charlton Johnson, was going to be leaving in about six months, and they were looking for someone to fill that chair. Tim told me to start working on my Freddie Green style comping. The Basie Orchestra does not hold auditions—they hire musicians on referral from either someone that is in the band currently or someone who had played in the band previously. 

I had performed with the previous vocalist, Carmen Bradford, at a Jazz Festival in KC a few years before, so she served as a reference,  and I also sent CJ a tape of myself playing. I got a call from the new band director, Grover Mitchell, and we had a short conversation about what his plans were for the Orchestra; he mentioned that he was bringing in a new rhythm section. He told me that the band was having two rehearsals at Carroll’s Studios in New York, and to be there on January 15th. He was not promising me the gig—he needed to check me out first. I was a little nervous, but it went well.

JGT: How would you describe the art of comping in the classic Freddie Green style?

I like to describe it as being similar to the way the great pianist and composer Erroll Garner used   his left hand—sometimes using sparse voicings to outline the harmony, played with quarter notes on each beat of the measure. It swings and it feels good, which means you need to have rhythm and good time.

JGT: How did you learn it? 

I got a call from a guy named Eddie Baker that had a band called the New Breed Orchestra, and he played a lot of Basie charts—in fact my wife, Bea Gray, played upright bass for his band in the late 1970’s. He contacted me back in the 80’s to ask if l would like to sub sometime in his band, and I accepted his offer. The next day I met with him and he gave me a tape of the Basie Orchestra and said, ‘listen to this guitar player: This is what I want you to do with my band.’ That’s when and how I started learning to play that style—from listening to the recordings; no books, no instructions.

JGT: Can it be taught or is it just a “feel” thing?

Yes, that style of comping can be taught, nothing mystical about it. You just need to know the do’s and don’ts.

JGT: Describe your specific role/function in the Basie band?

 My role is to be the catalyst that glues the rhythm section together and locks the tempo down for the entire orchestra to reference, all while staying out of the way of the piano and ensemble by using the proper voicings.

Will Matthews Photo Credit: Mark Sheldon

JGT: Do you feel a sense of obligation regarding the unique and storied history of the small number of players serving the role of that specific chair in the band?

The great Freddie Green held the chair for fifty years, and after his passing in 1987, the orchestra tried a couple of other guitarists—Paul Weeden and Jerry Eastman—but neither stayed very long. They hired Charlton Johnson in 1990 under the direction of Frank Foster and he stayed for six years, and then I succeeded CJ. I’ve held the chair for 25 years, and yes, I do feel a strong obligation to uphold the legacy and continuum of the style that Freddie Green created so many years ago. It gives me a good feeling when a young guitarist comes to me and wants to learn or improve on playing that style.

JGT: How has yours been different in comparison to the previous guitarists?

A couple of things: First, he carried two guitars, one for playing rhythm, and an electric to play the feature that he had on a composition that Frank Foster wrote for him. He also carried an amp. When Grover Mitchell hired me to play, he disallowed the use of the electric guitar and the amp. And I was okay with that because Freddie Green didn’t use one, and it was much easier just carrying one guitar. 

The second thing is this: Not long after I had joined the orchestra, Grover called me into his dressing room out on the road somewhere, and said to me, ‘Will…you know, Freddie Green never took solos, but I can see you sitting on a stool in front of the band with the spotlight on you playing “Lush Life” unaccompanied….’ I think this is because he would hear me practicing backstage and “Lush Life” was one of the songs that I would play with the late Kenny (Doc) Hing [tenor player on the Basie Band], just the two of us. One night we are in Dayton, Ohio playing at a club and Grover hears us playing “Lush Life” backstage and decides to put us in the show that night, and it was received very well. 

A few months later he came to me and said, ‘Will, I want you to make an introduction to “Li’l Darlin’” and let me know when you’ve got something.’ I’m thinking, the guitar does not get this kind of opportunity in this band, so you better seize the moment, and I took about three days and informed Grover that I had something worked out, and he put me in the show that night, and it was very well received by the audience, so he kept that in the show every night and kept adding features for me with the vocalist (the late Chris Murrell) and eventually that led to having the space to just play whatever I wanted to in the feature spot, with the rhythm section accompanying me. From having the opportunity to be featured almost every night, I was inspired to record my first CD, Will Matthews Solo released in 2000, and I credit the late Grover Mitchell for the opportunity.

JGT: You also had a unique opportunity to do an actual guitar solo in the studio—that’s an extremely rare event in the realm of Basie guitarists, yes?

Yes, that’s right—it was during a recording of a Scotty Barnhardt [trumpeter and Basie Orchestra bandleader] arrangement of “Tequila,” which, by the way, featured the legendary Jon Faddis on trumpet. It was on the 2018 album, All About That Basie It was released on Concord and nominated for a Grammy for “Best Large Ensemble” album. []

JGT: How can others learn to master the subtle art of the Freddie Green comping style?

You definitely need to listen to the recordings and check out what Freddie Green is doing, And also, Charlton Johnson wrote and published an excellent book on playing the style. It’s called Swing & Big Band Guitar: Four-To-The-Bar Rhythm Guitar in the Style of Freddie Green, and I highly recommend it.

JGT: Do you think the art of comping is underrated when compared to being a skilled lead guitarist?

Yes I do. It seems to me that a lot of young guitarists don’t understand the importance of being able to comp and accompany. No one is going to hire you just because you’re a good soloist. Yes, being able to solo is a plus, but horn players, vocalists, etc. want to know that you can make them sound good by your comping and accompaniment skills. Knowing how to accompany a vocalist is very important—as well as how to make introductions and endings. That’s what gets you the gig. 

JGT: What’s life like on the road with the Basie band?

Before the pandemic, touring with the Basie Orchestra was always a good time once we hit the stage. The flights, bus rides and preparation leading up to the performance is the work, and takes up most of your day. The road life is great, especially when it comes to getting the opportunity to work with some of the best artists in the business and perform all over the world for appreciative audiences and fans of the music.

JGT: What kind of equipment are you currently using?

The guitar I use with the Basie Orchestra is a D’Angelico NYL-2 17 thin-body that I went to the factory in Tokyo, Japan and picked out in 2000. I also have a D’Angelico Excel Custom, a D’Angelico NYL-5 thin-body, thanks to Shiino-san, the owner of D’Angelico Guitars Japan. I just purchased my first Strat last summer in 2020, and pedalboard—I’m having a ball experimenting with that sound. I have a Walter Woods amp for loud gigs, a couple of Acoustic Image amps I use with an 8” Polytone speaker for “not-so-loud” gigs, and a pair of 10” E-Series JBL speaker cabs.

JGT: With someone that has been in such a high-profile position in a legendary big band, why hasn’t there been more interviews with you over the years?

That’s a good question—I’m still trying to figure that one out…I think I need to go find Marvin Gaye to find out “What’s goin’ on!” [laughs]..but I really appreciate the interviews that I’ve had with you over the years.

JGT: Have you done any solo album projects during the course of your lengthy career with the orchestra?

Yes, my first album [Will Matthews Solo] was released in 2000 independently, and my second CD, Count on Swingin’ was released in 2009 independently as well. That one has the late, great Mel Rhyne from the original Wes Montgomery Trio playing organ, Kenney Phelps at the drums and Bobby Watson playing alto on two songs. They both can be purchased at willmatthews,com

JGT: Do you have your own individual combo that you perform with when you’re not traveling?

I have the B-3 Organ Project that features former Basie pianist Bobby Floyd from Columbus, Ohio and drummer Marty Morrision. We will be recording a new project very soon. I also  have the Organ Trio that has the same drummer and a couple of different organists from here in KC.

JGT: What other musical dates have you had outside of the Basie world that were interesting?

I had the opportunity to perform at the Wes Montgomery Jazz Festival in Indianapolis (with Bobby Floyd playing organ) and to perform together with guitarist Henry Johnson and Fareed Haque at the Jazz Kitchen. Also, I performed with my B-3 Organ Project with Bobby Floyd and drummer Clayton Cameron in Japan at a jazz venue. I went to Brazil a few years ago with the Butch Miles Big Band and performed with Mary Stallings & Ernie Andrews with the Bobby Watson 18th & Vine Street Big Band. I performed with Bob James at the Bob James Jazz Festival in his hometown of Marshall, Missouri. I just recently recorded a track—virtually—with Basie rhythm section and the Chicago Acapella on “Every Day I Have The Blues” that will be out soon.

JGT: Of the many legendary artists the Basie band has backed, which ones stand out as most memorable?

Wow, that’s a hard one because there’s been so many, but definitely I would be remiss if I didn’t include Joe Williams, and also Patti Austin. But I also have to say that one of the most memorable performances was with Kenny Burrell, at the Blue Note New York in 1999—because the very first jazz record that I bought was his ‘RoundMidnight album and I wore that record out! And here I am on stage with my idol performing with him. He was very gracious and gave me the opportunity to trade 4’s with him on one of his songs every night for the week that we were there.

Cover photo credits – James Ward

JGT: You hail from Kansas City…what’s that been like? How has being there influenced the path of your career?

Growing up and living in KC has been great. There’s a lot of history here—jazz grew up here in KC. This is the birthplace of Charlie Parker, as well as the Count Basie Orchestra. During the Pendergast years when the city was wide open, musicians from all over came here to work and hone their craft. I had the opportunity to be around and play with “next-generation” musicians that played with both Charlie Parker and Count Basie, and I learned some lessons about what to do and what not to do. Grover Mitchell wanted to hire more musicians from KC to join the Orchestra, and would ask me from time to time about who I thought might fit the bill for future reference.

JGT: What was winning the two Grammy Awards like?

It was very exciting and surreal for me when it happened the first time, because it was the very first recording that I played on in 1996 that won the Grammy [Live at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild], and it was a live recording. The second was a studio recording titled Count Plays Duke recorded in 1997, and the goal was to get this recording nominated and win the Grammy in the “Large Ensemble” category, and it happened in 1998. It was equally as exciting, and humbling as well because even when you put your best foot forward, you could still miss the mark.

JGT: Talk about your Youtube videos of “Lift Evr’y Voice” and “Goin’ Up Yonder”—why and how did those come about?

A longtime friend and trombonist, Louis Neal, called me to ask if I would be interested in recording two songs for an annual event that his sorority group holds on Martin Luther King Day, and asked me to upload them to YouTube so he could access them and add to their program. I went to another friend’s home studio—Will Thornton’s—to record and get video footage, and I thought it came off pretty good.

Videos by Will Thornton

JGT: What’s on the future horizon for the Basie Orchestra? 

There is a new CD coming out soon that was recorded live at Birdland New York last year with several guest artists on it, and before the pandemic shut things down, there was talk of a new studio recording. Otherwise, the Orchestra has tour dates on the calendar starting in mid-April here in the US and some tentative dates for Europe later in the summer.

JGT: Do you do any educational clinics, festivals, or workshops in your spare time whenever you’re not on the road?

Yes, I am the Artist-in-Residence for the Kansas City Jazz Academy at the American Jazz Museum here in KC again this year, and will be working with guitar students and the ensembles they play in.

JGT: What advice would you give the current and future generation of young guitar players trying to make it in the business? 

I would advise them to practice all aspects of the instrument, and be versatile, because you never know when an opportunity might present itself—you want to be prepared to seize the moment. Try to get together with musicians that play better and know more than you do, so you will have something to draw from that helps you get better. Network as much as possible: Knowing somebody that knows somebody is very important in the music business. Play the music you love and that you have a passion for, and you will never go wrong. 

JGT: Any last comments or  questions we should get to while we’re at it?

I’ll pose one last question….How do you get to Carnegie Hall? (smiles…)

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