By Sabina L. Lilly
Since moving to Chicago “during the polar vortex of 2013” as he puts it, guitarist Matt Gold has been making music with an array of cutting-edge jazz artists such as drummer Makaya McCraven and saxophonist Greg Ward, as well as with his own groups: his trio with drummer Jeremy Cunningham and bassist Bryan Doherty, the duo Sun Speak with drummer/percussionist Nate Friedman, and the singer-songwriter duo Storm Jameson with guitarist Jim Tashjian.
Drawn to the city by its diverse musical scene, in 2015 Matt launched a record label and concert series titled Flood Music to present new music across a swath of genres, bringing together the worlds of singer-songwriters and instrumental/improvising bands.
On the heels of a European summer tour with McCraven and a Hyde Park Jazz Festival performance with Ward, we think it’s a great time to learn more about Matt and his musical vision.
CJM: Talk about your early exposure to music growing up in Long Island, New York. Is your family musical?
Matt Gold: I grew up in a house full of instruments and records, which had a huge influence on me. My parents are not professional musicians but both have rich musical lives—my mom gave me my first piano lessons as a kid, and starting around age five my dad would prop me up on his drums and teach me to play along to records (he had to play the bass drum and hi-hat, my feet couldn’t reach). My older brother is a great pianist too, now living in New Orleans; we played a ton of music together growing up.
CJM: How did you end up playing guitar—and do you or have you played other instruments?
MG: In addition to his drum set, my dad had a few weird old guitars lying around when I was growing up. I remember one acoustic guitar that had three steel strings and three nylon strings on it, and the action was so high that I’d set it on my lap and use my thumb just to push the strings down enough to make a sound. So the guitar was there before I even really started playing in any kind of focused way. By the time I was about nine I started picking my dad’s brain more about how to play, as well as a good friend’s father who played some guitar as well.
The viola was really the first instrument I got a little serious about. I had some great opportunities with the local youth orchestra to play some very heavy music at a young age and there were, at least from what I could tell at the time, more outlets for pursuing the viola in an organized way with kids looking to play at a higher level. I’d been working on guitar throughout those years too, but in a more casual way—just putting bands together with friends and trying to write songs, learn songs we liked. I hadn’t yet really connected the dots to see all those experiences as part of one big thing, so viola was the “real” instrument and guitar was the “fun” instrument, to a certain extent. That attitude probably had a lot to do with my feeling that the avenue to expressing my own musical ideas was much more open with the guitar.
CJM: Was there a specific recording, performance, or moment that first ignited your interest in jazz?
MG: I always feel like exposure is everything. Growing up listening to great records from day one has so much to do with it, I think. There are some home videos where you can see two-year-old me and there’s an Ornette record blasting in the background . . . my dad would put on lots of Miles, Sonny Rollins, Keith Jarrett’s American Quartet, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis stuff, and had even taken a few lessons with Ed Blackwell when he was young and so we had the Old and New Dreams records.
The Lincoln Center Orchestra would run these daytime programs for kids that we’d check out, so I got to hear that band a lot growing up. Later on in high school I went to spots like the 55 Bar, the Vanguard, the Jazz Gallery . . . it was pretty mind-bending, checking that stuff out. While later on it felt (and sometimes continues to feel) like a professional stretch to try and find my way through the music, it never felt like a personal or emotional stretch; I feel like I’m a product of being exposed to a wide variety of sounds and given a chance to explore playing music from an early age in a way that felt both fun and meaningful.
CJM: Who were your significant teachers or mentors while earning your performance degree from Oberlin, or at any other point in your musical development?
MG: When I got to Oberlin I was lucky to spend many, many hours with percussionist Jamey Haddad, and he taught me (and countless musicians working all over the world these days) so much about working towards developing a personal approach, exploring music from around the world, and just having your heart in the right place every time you play. The guitar thing started to come a little bit more into focus with the help of Bobby Ferrazza and Stephen Aron, and I also have to shout out my friend and great guitarist Jarrett Carter, who gave me some lessons when I first got to Oberlin, before joining the music school. More than anything, though, it was the community of students both in and out of the music school that shaped the way I learned to play and cultivate ideas. You put a few hundred imaginative musicians in a four-block radius in a small town and a lot of interesting music gets made, a lot of long-lasting musical relationships get formed.
CJM: Some musicians would say you made a “reverse move,” choosing to relocate to Chicago rather than return to New York after graduating. Can you tell us the factors that went into that decision?
MG: New York is still an incredible place, but I definitely don’t ascribe to the idea that it’s the only place to be. When I moved to Chicago in my early twenties, I knew I was looking for a place that had a deep musical history, a diverse music scene, cheaper rent, and small venues presenting new music. My main priorities were having time and resources to write, getting projects off the ground, and getting the music heard. There’s space for new ideas and projects here—musicians are open to developing things and making time to rehearse, and there are affordable studios to work from. When I moved here I found a really open-minded scene full of people ready to try new ideas and collaborate. And I think it’s always growing and developing, too—each year I’m amazed by the work my friends are making here, and grateful for the things I’m able to participate in.
CJM: You have performed, collaborated, and recorded with many musicians in various settings. Can you talk about one or two artists, as well as a specific experience, that have helped define your playing?
MG: I’ll have to sing the praises of more than one or two people here. My solo music features drummer Jeremy Cunningham and electric bassist Bryan Doherty, and working with them has been totally inspiring—the level of listening on stage and really wide scope of music they can pull from is something I really value. Before playing my music, that trio played a number of improvised gigs around Chicago; the open-ended intuitive playing cultivated a really sincere sense of trust and exploration that I’ve tried to harness into my writing for those guys, even as the music gets more specific and part-oriented.
Drummer Nate Friedman makes up the other half of my duo Sun Speak, and I feel we’ve developed a way of playing and phrasing together that is glued together in an almost spooky way. He and I have been working on a shared musical vocabulary for nearly ten years and it’s been wild to continue finding new ways of playing together. We were also fortunate to collaborate with the vocalist and composer Sara Serpa, who has taught me a lot about leaning into your voice and vision to approach the music with honesty and vulnerability.
I’ve been lucky to spend time on the road with some incredible musicians like Makaya McCraven and Greg Ward—these guys have helped push me musically, and the experience of traveling so much together has given us a lot of laughs and some extraordinarily profound musical moments.
There is also a beautiful little scene that grows out of Bryan’s band Hood Smoke—I’d like to mention these guys for all the lessons I’ve learned in the studio, working on more produced rock/pop/folk records . . . a few musicians working mostly outside of Chicago’s jazz scene that are some serious musical minds like drummer Michael Caskey and guitarist/singer Jim Tashjian. Jim and I also have a band called Storm Jameson, and our album The Year of Orbison was the first record I self-engineered, which was a big learning experience too.
CJM: In addition to a busy playing schedule, you founded Flood Music, a Chicago-based, artist-run label and concert series. How did that come to fruition?
MG: Flood Music came out of some conversations with my friends and great musicians Matt Carroll and Dan Pierson—we were just looking for new ways to present the music and projects we’d been working on. At the end of 2014 we started doing monthly concerts in the basement of a house I lived in, always hosting a singer-songwriter set and an instrumental/improvised music set. We were curious how these worlds could collide and combine, as a lot of our own music was often situated halfway between the two. Within about a year we moved the series to a small bar in town, and in 2016 started putting out records. I’m proud of these releases—they are all records that at least one of us has had some hand in making, whether as the artist, part of the band, producer, engineer, etc.—and they represent an aesthetic of combining songwriting, improvisation, and experimentation.
CJM: In 2018, your duo put out an album on Flood Music titled Sun Speak with Sara Serpa. How did that recording come about?
MG: That record with Sara was actually the very first release for the label. When Sun Speak first formed, we actually wanted to make the band a trio with a vocalist, but hadn’t yet found the right person. We pressed on as a duo but always had in the back of our minds the notion that if the right person came along, it would be a fun collaboration. We connected with Sara a few years ago via a mutual friend and it was a beautiful experience to write some music together and make that record—her sound folded into the music more perfectly than we could have hoped for. I’ve been lucky to continue working with Sara on some other music of mine, too.
Sun Speak with Sara Serpa was the first release on the Flood Music label; we had talked about expanding the concert series to include a label component, and this was our first experiment with that—since then, the label has released seven other recordings with three more coming up later this year.
CJM: Can you describe your writing concepts as well as the process you go through to compose original music?
MG: I can’t say there’s anything too complicated to it—I still work with pencil and paper and have a number of notebooks and books of manuscript paper that follow me around . . . the music kind of evolves out of that. At any given time I’ll have a handful of pieces that I’m chipping away at, trying to finish, and meanwhile I’ll also take time each day to just get some more raw ideas out. If the day’s schedule allows, I try to always get my writing in first thing in the morning—before things get too mentally cluttered. Lately, the writing has been less improvisation-oriented and more focused on concise melody and deliberate sonic choices; I’ve also been doing a lot more work lately with writing words and finding ways to incorporate singing into the music.
CJM: What gigs, projects, and/or recordings are on your horizon?
MG: Lots of exciting things coming up! I’m releasing my first solo record, Imagined Sky, next year; it features my trio as well as a few singers including Sara Serpa, Macie Stewart, and myself, and I did post-production with my friend and collaborator Dan Pierson. Some other releases—Sun Speak is releasing an album next month called Moon Preach, and Flood Music will also release a record in November by singer Alison Wedding, on which I accompany her on guitar and percussion through a set of her original songs. Storm Jameson is getting ready to make our second record this winter and I look forward to taking the trio on the road a little more next year as well. I’m still fairly busy touring with Makaya, and Greg Ward’s band will head overseas at the end of October. There’s also a newer group emerging that I formed with Katie Ernst on bass and voice, and Artie Black on bass clarinet—I’m playing acoustic guitar and we’re all writing music for it; that’s been a lot of fun to explore, too.
For the latest news, follow Matt on Facebook or Instagram @mattgoldmusic, or visit http://mattgoldmusic.com/.
Chicago Jazz Magazine content manager (and sometime-contributor) Sabina L. Lilly has been a professional musician for over three decades. Contact Sabina at firstname.lastname@example.org.