Matthews Has Tradition, and More, in Repertory : Jazz: The pianist, who plays regularly with singer Nancy Wilson, will get to flex his musical muscles in a guest spot tonight at Kikuya in Huntington Beach.


Listen to pianist Llew Matthews play with singer Nancy Wilson, or one of his occasional appearances with such jazz notables as Kenny Burrell and Buddy Collette, and you hear an inventive, adventurous artist who enjoys both jazz’s tradition and its more expressive aspects.

Matthews, a Buena Park resident who guests with singer Jack Wood’s trio tonight at Kikuya in Huntington Beach, says this expansive style was pretty much cast right from his first major jazz gig, when he played with alto saxophone great Jackie McLean, trumpeter Woody Shaw and drummer Roy Haynes in the late ‘60s at the now-defunct jazz club Slug’s in New York City. “That band broke so many of the rules, with so much of the music based on timing and impulse rather than form. I had to do some very quick learning, and that experience stayed with me,” Matthews said in a phone interview from his home.

At that time in New York, jazz was bursting with excitement and new ideas from both veterans such as McLean and trumpeter Kenny Dorham, and then-newcomers like Chick Corea and Shaw.


“It allowed me to see how music can be played on an emotional as well as theoretical level,” he said. “It’s like you have all this schooled learning, and then you put that aside and have to rely on your ears and interactions with the other players. You suddenly have a lot of possibilities, where you can either initiate ideas or react to those being generated by the others.”

After New York, Matthews spent eight years as a bandmaster in the Air Force, moved in 1977 to Southern California and in 1987 hooked up with Nancy Wilson. Due to the constancy of that employment--the singer appears almost every weekend somewhere in the United States, Europe or Japan--he doesn’t feel comfortable setting up a band on his own or becoming a member of someone else’s.


Consequently, he doesn’t get much chance these days to openly flex the musical muscles he first tested during those halcyon days in New York. So tonight’s performance at Kikuya, where the trio will play several tunes before backing Jack Wood for a few numbers, take on added significance.

“I’ll get to explore some possibilities, play standards and classic jazz tunes, and maybe some avant-garde or classical pieces, maybe reach inside the piano and use my fingers against the strings,” he said. “But I’m always aware of the audience. I have to be in touch with them. I don’t want to do something that loses them.”

A modernist, Matthews clearly has studied the rich harmonic manner of McCoy Tyner, the smooth melodic flow of Herbie Hancock. Other pianists he’s fond of include Thelonious Monk, Herbie Nichols, Keith Jarrett, Oscar Peterson, Kenny Kirkland and Mulgrew Miller.

Matthews was born in 1946 in Harlem, first studied French horn and attended the High School of Music and Art, where his classmates included bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Billy Cobham.


Taking up piano as a teen-ager because it augmented his interest in composition, Matthews studied at the New York College of Music (now a part of New York University), then joined the New York jazz scene.

Like so many other professional musicians, Matthews can’t imagine another way of life.

“Music has always fascinated me,” he said. “Of all the arts, it spoke to me the loudest. It’s such an ambiguous, amorphous entity, there’s nothing concrete. Once it goes, it’s gone. It occupies space for that one brief moment, and then we just have memories of it.”

* Llew Matthews plays with Jack Wood’s trio tonight at Kikuya, 8052 Adams Ave., Huntington Beach. 8 p.m. No cover, no minimum. (714) 536-6665.