Onzy Matthews

Mosaic Select: Onzy Matthews

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Los Angeles based composer/arranger/band leader Onzy Matthews was in many ways a poor man's equivalent to peers like Gerald Wilson, Oliver Nelson, Manny Albam, and Bill Holman. Perhaps as obscure a jazz musician as there has been in recent memory, Matthews was no less talented, but in fact a specialist whose style was based in blues, also veering into other areas that showcased his interest in diverse music. Consisting primarily of studio sessions previously unreleased, this three-CD package sets the record straight on the ability of Matthews to assemble a top-notch West coast group and whip them into a tight unit able to play relatively uncomplicated charts, but with no modicum of interplay and precision. These recordings from 1963 to 1965 cover a few standards, feature strings at times, some vocals, many bossa nova tunes that were never available until now, commercial fare à la Nelson, and are chock-full of fine musicians. They include Sonny Criss, H. Ray Crawford, trombonist Horace Tapscott, Richard "Groove" Holmes, Curtis Amy, Dupree Bolton, Earl Palmer, Jerry McKenzie, Joe Maini, Gabe Baltazar, Bobby Bryant, and two of the King Sisters among numerous others. The first CD features 12 previous unreleased tracks, all in the bossa nova beat, featuring a mid-sized ensemble to a little big band, with the tasteful and crisp playing of ex-Stan Kenton drummer McKenzie, Bryant, Baltazar, Amy, and guitarist Al Viola, among others. These are performed on the lighter side, with "Bossa Nova Blue" in the cute, soulful Horace Silver mode, the quicker "Little Boat" paralleling "Midnight Sun" with barking brass inserts, a sweet Brazilian "Canadian Sunset," and four Matthews originals, "A New Samba for Margo" with unison playing, and the others including a small string section. Alto saxophonist Earl Anderza leads a sextet minus Matthews plus tenor saxophonist Hadley Caliman for "Joe & I," which is the lone bopper, and "Midnight Lament," a ballad feature for the troubled trumpeter Bolton. The second CD comprises the complete Capitol LP Blues With a Touch of Elegance, with Matthews back at the 88's with a big band, but there are first versions of "I Cover the Waterfront," "Blues Non-Stop," "Dallas Blues," and the wild "Somethin's Cookin'," where organist Holmes and guitarist Crawford take the groove over, offering great contrast from the originally issued, piano-based tracks. Joe Maini's dramatic alto takes center stage on the ballad "Pensive," his cartoonish horn is folded into the alternate "Dallas Blues," and a beautiful off-minor treatment of "Satin Doll" is offered. The final disc combines the more fully orchestrated album Sounds for the '60s! with more unissued material, offering greater personnel mixing and matching with different lineups. From the album that was previously available, guitarist Herb Ellis guests on "Ballad for Orchestra," a cool version of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" is a classic, flutes and trumpets identify the top layer of the lovely "Spring Is Here," and the bop/blues "Down in My Soul" again reflects the Oliver Nelson cinematic Hollywood style. There's a bossa version of "Moon River," Criss plays lead alto on "People," there's a funky, commercial "White Gardenia," the montuno Latin piano groover "Mexicali Brass," and the go-go shuffle of "Blues for the Reverend." The final three selections showcase the Lou Rawls-cum-Billy Eckstine-styled vocals of an overdubbed Matthews, including a bopping "Put on a Happy Face," the ballad "I Thought About You," and the deeply bluesy "Guess I'd Better Go Back Home," the latter two with unidentified female vocal complement. Many other highlights are present, including two versions of Jerry Goldsmith's country-ish "Lillies of the Field," a vocal version of "Blues Non-Stop," the King Sisters oohing and ahhing under the sextet take of "Lefty Louie Blues," "Ray-On Blues" with its grooving piano or horn riff trade-offs, and the hard bopping "Burnin'" with Crawford and the band literally on fire. As forgotten a master as there ever was one in the annals of jazz, Onzy Matthews was a class act, a highly talented musician on many levels, and one whom historians and archivists should grant a revisit. This superbly produced, compiled, and especially annotated collection should provide Matthews and his men a worthy second chance.

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