This story also appears on http://www.nippertown.com
So prolific, so hyphenated, he needs two names, jazz-pop saxophonist-composer-keyboardist-singer-bandleader-teacher Matt Steckler AND Matty Stecks sums up his past, jumps genres and looks ahead on four recent record releases.
The most recent and ambitious, “Long Time Ago Rumble” sums up everything so far in a varied career. Jumping around like a car radio on “scan,” it offers a a confident ride through hard-bop, found-sounds, contemporary (also not so contemporary) pop/R&B, world-beat and what once was called “new music.”
Stecks attributed the stylistic range of the new two-CD album to “the talent pool up there,” explaining the project in an email conversation. “Up there” is Brandon, Manitoba where he taught for three years, performed, composed and recorded.
In July, as the COVID pandemic shut the door on any extension of his teaching contract there, he returned to his home town – like millions of others whose lives turned upside down. He lives now with singer-wife Megan Demarest and their precocious eight-year old son Elliott in the suburban Niskayuna home of his artist-retired Union professor father Charles Steckler and his father’s wife Ginger Ertz, retired education chief at Skidmore’s Tang Teaching Museum.
So, how did a hometown Schenectady kid wind up in Manitoba, then back here?
The short answer: a confluence of academic, creative and performance endeavors, a path that echoes his father’s and that landed him in 2017 as Assistant Professor in Jazz Studies in the Brandon University School of Music. Stecks taught Jazz Composition, Jazz History, Aural Skills, a Graduate Seminar in Performance, Advanced Improvisation; Ensemble Coaching and ran the Saxophone Studio.
An even shorter answer: through a questing talent buffed bright by many mentors in technique and vision.
In the last graduating class (1992) at Linton High School (which became Schenectady High School when cross-town counterpart Mont Pleasant became a middle school), Stecks sang in the chorus Diane Warner led, studied jazz with bandleaders or private teachers Al Hollenbeck, Sheila Tebbano and Jim Orden; and saxophone with Emil Kalled, Nick Brignola, Conrad Kuchay and Chuck Fisher.
Vibraphonist Jay Hoggard was his advisor “and link to traditional jazz practices” at Wesleyan, where Anthony Braxton “was the visionary who opened my ears to composition and the avant garde,” as Stecks explained. He also drove into New York for sax lessons with Thomas Chapin and explored world music with T. Viswanathan, Abraham Adzenyah, Gage Averill and others. While playing a weekly quartet gig with Braxton, he also started what later became his band Dead Cat Bounce (hereafter DCB, mostly), first in music/poetry collaborations with his room-mate, then a growing fascination with the World Saxophone Quartet.
After Wesleyan, Stecks earned a Masters in Music in Jazz Performance at the New England Conservatory, studying with Jerry Bergonzi, Danilo Perez, Allan Chase, Paul Bley, Cecil McBee, Bob Moses and others, plus briefer stints with Gunther Schuller and Steve Lacy and other luminaries. DCB came into its own in the Boston area, too: three albums and three tours from 1997 to 2003.
More training, more gigs and a new band followed in New York from 2003 to 2014 when he made a fourth DCB album, plus two with Persiflage. Meanwhile, he earned a Master of Arts and a Ph.D. in Composition at NYU and studied with Jerica Oblak, Jim McNeely, Marc Antonio Consoli and Justin Dello Joio. Numerous Persiflage gigs included Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors and the Blue Note in New York, the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, Cleveland’s Tri-C Fest and the Hennessy XO Jazz Fest in Shanghai.
In 2012 and 2013, Stecks presented the big-band series “Party Horns” in Proctors GE Theater, as his own music earned critical plaudits.
JazzTimes called DCB’s fourth album “Chance Episodes” one of its top 50 jazz CDs of 2011; Stecks composed the music on commission by Chamber Music America and the American Music Center’s Composer Assistance Program, but it’s anything but academic.
In the Boston Phoenix, Jon Garelick hailed DCB’s sound as “tightly arranged, swirling contrapuntal reeds and multi-part blues n’ roots-infused tricky compositions.” Mike Joyce reported in the Washington Post, “DCB revels in a reed-driven sound marked by sharply contrasting forms, textures and tones…strident, joyful, lush and strutting use of a horn section.”
Of the Party Horns series at Proctors, Stecks said, “Besides bringing (his own bands) Dead Cat Bounce and Persiflage there, I brought some other great New York City bands upstate,” including Red Baraat, Slavic Soul Party, Josh Roseman, Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber and Brooklyn Qawwali Party. Stecks said, “(Proctors chief) Philip Morris has always had an open heart to trying new and creative ideas out.”
In a spring 2012 Gazette preview of the series, I described DCB as “inspired in about equal measure by the World Saxophone Quartet and Charles Mingus, plus Caribbean, Brazilian and West African echoes. It’s in nonstop intelligent motion but never feels hectic because the melodies are so pleasing, the beats so earthy. They go pretty far outside at times, but they know the way back and how to get there without a map. They’re well schooled but intuitive, individual in their soloing but also eagerly cohesive section players.”¶
In 2014, Stecks moved to Bennington with wife Megan and son Elliott. Stecks taught at the Dorset School and played regularly with Alex Torres and His Latin Orchestra including the New York State Fair in Syracuse and the Saratoga Museum of Dance.
Then in 2017, they moved to Manitoba on a three-year teaching contract. In the way that the best educators learn by teaching, Stecks refined both technique and artistic vision north of the border.
About technique, Stecks-the-professor said, “I realized at last the value of classical technique in getting young musicians to ‘put it all together.’” He added, “But equally important is training and trusting the ear and the body. So I’m both refining a skill set specific to my main instrument and becoming more holistic in experiencing music, through my voice and other instruments (piano, drums, production). Each side informs the other.”
Conceptually, “I’m no longer concerned with the loaded term ‘finding one’s voice,’” he said. “I realize now that the voice is Matty Stecks,” he explained, noting the moniker is a longstanding nickname among his friends, but now is also “a practical way to deal with having all projects under one roof.” He said, “The genre (is) merely the vehicle through which to express it. That’s very liberating.”
Credited to Matty Stecks & the Musical Tramps, the most ambitious project assembled under that roof is “Long Time Ago Rumble,” a two-CD studio project released on Ropeadope/Manitoba Film and Music. Stecks plays reeds and keyboards and sings, with singer-wife Megan Demarest, three other singers, guitars, bass, drums and percussion, keyboards, cello and clarinet.
“The cast of talented musicians I’ve assembled put their heart and soul into this effort, which began as a live world premiere concert, commissioned by Brandon Chamber Players in January 2019,” wrote Stecks in the liner notes. “Together, the ensemble is lovingly called Matty Stecks & Musical Tramps (named after the 1914 Chaplin film which I re-scored for the occasion.)”
He explained by email that he recorded the album in May and June of 2019 with producer Jordan Jackiew at Tailored Recording in Winnipeg. “The jazz stuff was tracked together live, the pop and film score was tracked; the rhythm section together plus overdubs and the collective improv stuff tracked together with electronic processing in post (-production).”
Leaving Manitoba in July as COVID shut down the world, Stecks “didn’t want it to be a lost year, so I made sure I had a creative outlet where I’m waiting this out in my home town. I’m presenting at music conferences online, consolidating that research. I had two album recordings in the vault (“Lucky & Live in STL” with DCB and “Night Cravings” with Persiflage) that I didn’t want to sit on any longer, so I released those on New Year’s. And I’m practicing a fair amount and writing and working on my production skills.”
While in Manitoba, Steckler also played a supporting role in “Suite 150: A Big Band Jazz Portrait” by the Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra as member of the reed section rather than a soloist. “Suite 150” collects 11 pieces, one each by 11 Canadian composers celebrating their homeland on its 150th year (in 2017; the album was released in 2018). It’s modern, bold and confidently played.
Steckler led the two retrospectives he released Jan 1.
“Live and Lucky in StL” shows DCB in full flight on a 2003 tour. These guys play music; it’s charged with youthful energy, but applied to veterans’ views of the tradition(s) they celebrate. The configuration – four saxes, bass and drums – feels both muscular and sparse without a keyboard or guitar comping chords. Its performing bravado matches a conceptual boldness that may shine brightest in its most familiar tune. Charles Mingus’s venerable “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” usually swings in a melancholy way, but here it’s rambunctious and zippy before settling into brawny section playing over a gleeful clatter. They close with a Second Line shuffle that might make you sprain something if you tried to shake with all its beats. Here, Stecker plays with fellow saxophonists Jared Sims, Felipe Salles and Charlie Kohlhase, bassist Garry Wicks and drummer Bill Carbone.
“Night Cravings” is a Persiflage studio date (2014). The band was elastic in its NYC gigs, often featuring name players. But by the end of Steckler’s Brooklyn residency, he’d solidified the lineup with Curtis Hasselbring, trombone; Todd Neufeld, guitar; Dave Ambrosio, bass; and Satoshi Takeishi, percussion. Generally leaner in its arrangements than the DCB release, it swings with a more muscular feel. It also explores fresh sonorities in the blend of sax, trombone and guitar. Some is feisty, some sweet, but always a confident, fun ride.
On these DCB and Persiflage projects, Stecks plays various reeds, ranging from pristine Jean-Pierre Rampal flute phrasing to edgy David Sanborn-like rawness on alto, his most fluent solo axe. And on ““Long Time Ago Rumble,” he also sings and plays keyboards.
Now Stecks stays busy solo or in collaborations. “While gigs are important and sorely missed at this time,” he said, “a permanently documented legacy is on my mind (recordings and compositions), as is the drive to collaborate more, in research-based ways and as a means to reconnect with friends.”
Stecks is working on “little one-off solo performances online; a concert band plus chorus piece commission (a setting of a Walter LeMare poem) for Manitoba’s Music Monday event (which hopefully one day will be performed!); a Christmas recording with Maxine Linehan, and holiday stream concert from RPI/EMPAC; and some socially-distanced performing with Megan (jazz & popular covers).” He has a grant application for a jazz quartet recording project back in Manitoba “when things open up;” he’s teaching a few students online, taking his turn at meal prep in a gourmet-rich household of four cooks and home-schooling his son. “Perhaps my biggest project is trying to tame and channel the raging musical talent that is my son Elliott. If he realizes that, he’ll be a force to reckon with.”
He also collaborates, online and asynchronously, with musical friends, often posting these songs to YouTube:
“One person sends a video to another to improvise to, and it’s synched in editing,” he said. “The pop songs that have collaboration just require remote file sharing, and patience!”
In this oblique or virtual way, Stecks maintains collaborations and community. In the “Long Time Ago Rumble” liner notes, he writes, “A special thanks to the ‘village’ of Manitoba – my adopted home these last few years – you’ve helped me gain perspective on what a music scene, and a community, can be in a different setting.”
He said by email recently, “I’m in touch with the DCB core members and am trying to figure out performing opportunities, though everyone’s in different places. The Persiflage project would be easier to play live as everyone’s based in NYC. Although both have been dormant, I’m never one to say definitively ‘this is the end.’ And I’ve used music from both projects in other performing situations (like the quartet up north I intend to record at some point.”
Hopeful, realistic, ready to create, wherever, he said, “I have a path now for creating wherever I end up. And I’ll never take the opportunity to create for granted ever again.”
Stecks was recently selected for a composing residency at the Millay Colony for the Arts at “Steepletop,” the historic home of poet/activist Edna St. Vincent Millay in Austerlitz at the edge of the Berkshires.