Marc Matthys, born on 11 May 1956, studied at the Royal Conservatory in Ghent, where he earned a number of diplomas, including higher diplomas in piano and chamber music and first prizes in counterpoint and fugue. He also won prizes in several competitions, including the Van Roy Piano Competition (1976), the Tenuto Competition (1979), the Europ Jazz Contest (1979) and the Dunkirk Jazz Competition (1980). In 1980 he was also awarded the Grand Prix Humanitaire de France, a prize given to talented young artists in various disciplines. At present, Matthys is both director of the Kortrijk Music Conservatory and a teacher in the jazz and light music department at the Hogeschool Gent, Conservatory section. In addition, he is a guest lecturer at Bowling Green University (Ohio) and a member of the jury for the Europ Jazz Contest and Les Django’s d’Or, Victoires du Jazz. Matthys has made radio and television appearances both in his native Belgium and abroad (VARA, EBU, NCRV). Matthys has collaborated with musicians from a variety of backgrounds, including classical figures such as Dirk Brossé, Walter Boeykens and Rudolf Werthen, as well as the jazz legend Toots Thielemans and the pop singer/diva Shirley Bassey. For his CD recordings he has also worked with a variety of artists: classical orchestras (I Fiamminghi, the National Orchestra of Belgium), wind bands (The Symphonic Band of the Belgian Guides) and jazz ensembles (Trio Cucamonga, Big Band Sound), as well as with his own quartet, with which he played at the celebration of the wedding anniversary of King Baudouin and Queen Fabiola of Belgium in 1985. As a composer, Marc Matthys has already enjoyed recognition: in 2000 he was a composer-in-residence (together with Christian-Adolph Wauters and Piet Swerts) at the three-day Campo Festival in Antwerp, and in 2001 he was a winner at the BAP-SABAM international composition competition for jazz themes.
The diversity evident in Matthys’s biography is also found in his music, which may be situated somewhere between jazz (with detours to Pop/Funk/Latin) and classical music, in a style often termed “fusion” or (the more trendy) “cross-over”. Through the combination of different worlds, his work has achieved a special place in the Flemish musical landscape. At the same time it is worth noting that Matthys himself is little interested in such delimitations of musical territories, which he sees as largely artificial. Rather, he seeks to cross boundaries with his music.
This breaking down of all manner of barriers, which in musical terms is characterised by a mix of classical and jazz, or, if you will, of serious and light, may be considered an essential feature of his oeuvre. If there is one basic philosophy behind his music, it is perhaps an attempt to compose music which aims ultimately to move its listeners. His final value judgement is formed by the degree to which this succeeds, and not an ability to accommodate or fit neatly into established but often unconnected musical idioms. Here, jazz is not just a colour element, added as a whim in order to spice up the classical canon: it is an essential element, perhaps indeed the true point of departure for his music. Or in the words of Toots Thielemans: “Jazz is more than a flirt for him; he feels it and loves it” (P. Degryse, Marc Matthys opent Campo, in Muziek en woord, no. 308, p. 11). “Symphonic jazz-music” is thus perhaps the best description for a significant portion of his oeuvre, since this term refers to the attempt to merge different worlds, but with the accent primarily on jazz (the noun) and with the symphonic (the adjective) more generally understood as a classical influence, a additional element. Continuing to regard classical, jazz or other styles as separate and especially considering them rigidly within his oeuvre would be a disservice to the composer’s original musical fusion.
The way in which this fusion is achieved, and the broader characteristics of Matthys’s oeuvre for larger forces, can be illustrated with Contrasts (1991). The scoring of this work immediately shows evidence of the breaking with convention, through the combination of orchestra with jazz trio, joined by soloists on such instruments as the vibraphone and the bongos. More essential are, however, the diverse influences expressed in the music without standing in the way of its ultimate unity. The work begins with the opening movement Cantilena, in an impressionistic atmosphere, with a slow opening theme reminiscent of Milhaud, followed by the flowing melodic main theme (cf. the title “Cantilena”). A rhythmically pronounced “Latin feel” gradually emerges, together with an increasingly prominent brass section and many virtuoso turns in the flute solos. At the end of the movement there is a return to the slower opening motif, creating an audibly recognisable thematic closure. Moreover, the movement is as a whole built above a quasi-ostinato motif, which continues through various harmonic moods and is only departed from for any length of time in the more lively central passage, which creates an even stronger sense of musical unity. The second movement, Confrontation, proceeding directly from the first, begins with a prominent solo passage for the bongos but is subsequently dominated by a strongly rhythmic style, including samba and swing influences with sharp accents in the brass. The movement consists of various segments, chief of which is a prominent Interlude: with its Baroque character, this segment establishes a break, a striking interpolation within the movement. This Baroque interpolation is in turn itself frequently interrupted, and is subsequently combined with more jazzy sounds from this second movement – into which it is gradually absorbed. At the end of the work there is a return to the opening theme in a short Epilogue, which after the kaleidoscopic progression ultimately creates a musically rounded-off unity. In melodic-harmonic terms, Matthys’s approach comes across generally as a mix of a lyrical-melodic style with long, flowing melodies (which in the flute solos are “broken up” by elements of extreme virtuosity) and by a harmony characterised by dissonances (sevenths, ninths, and other jazz harmonies). This is further enriched by the Baroque interpolation, which especially through its typical motor-like rhythm introduces a different character into the work. A striking and generally characteristic feature of the more large-scale works by Matthys is the presence of extensive solos – striking chiefly because, as customary in jazz, they are to be improvised (live) by the soloists themselves. For Matthys, this represents a way to keep the music lively, since performances maintain a high degree of intensity as a result, and are not allowed to harden into soulless exercises. The importance of well-grounded performers is thus paramount, as the success of the works depends to a large extent on the realisations of improvised solos during the performances (or recordings). This work, like others by Matthys, also includes non-notated drum parts, or other parts indicated in the score only by chord symbols; this again highlights the aspect of improvisation demanded of the performers (and betrays Matthys’s jazz background). The frequent use of a (quasi) ostinato technique in this and other works can also be interpreted in the light of such solos: it is a clever way to create a free space for improvisation while at the same time maintaining a sturdy and recognisable basis.
The picture of this composer’s more extensive compositions that emerges from the examples in this one work can be complemented by elements from other work exhibiting the same variety, but with different musical accents. Trois Mouvements for jazz trio and big band (1990) has an opening movement (Meditation) with the subtitle Blues. The music would suggest, however, that this blues is not to be understood as “classic blues”. The blues is suggested mainly by the dark sound in certain passages, while for the rest the originally slower rhythm is regularly abandoned in favour of quicker Latin and here even Afro-rhythmic elements. The following two movements, New Bossa and Funk are inspired respectively by the South American bossa nova and the popular-music funk style. It is in particular this last element which provides surprising new musical elements, such as a robust drum part and the typical “slapped” bass guitar. As a result, the work tends more toward jazz/funk than to classical music, as the titles would suggest. However, that this is again an inaccurate generalisation is evidenced by such subtleties as the quotation of a fugal theme by César Franck, integrated into the first movement.
The strong sense of coherence found in this and other works by Matthys, with their diverse influences, is mainly a result of the fact that the composer does not simply imitate his various sources of inspiration (which would result in mediocre, artificial rhapsodies), but rather artfully combines them into an idiosyncratic musical idiom which, if it must be situated, is closer to jazz, but above all aims at musical unity. Generally speaking, Matthys’s larger-scale works tend towards more free forms (as indicated in titles such as Impressions, Mosaic, Reflections…). Like Contrasts, they are often built up out of several generally organically overflowing movements, which in turn consist of diverse and distinct segments and thus form one large, variable arch of tension. This process is often rounded off by a unifying return to the opening material at the end, but apart from that there is no assumed or traditional formal pattern underlying the whole. Matthys does employ currently established concepts, genres, rhythms or compositional techniques within certain movements, but the development remains very free and personal, as the Passacaglia in Mosaic for pop sextet and symphony orchestra (!) (1993) abundantly illustrates: the movement is suddenly interrupted by a rock-like passage in which the guitar is given a free-improvisational role.
Matthys can thus never be pinned down to one particular style or musical idiom: one work may fit nicely into a classical framework, nonetheless being regularly interrupted by jazz or rock elements, and the opposite is also the case, a process perhaps even more basic to his approach, given the harmonic language. Matthys applies a term such as “fusion” not merely as a way of adding something extra to his work, but rather his whole oeuvre is essentially characterised by original musical interactions. In the smaller-scale works this is in the first place less evident, since these usually have a more uniform character. Vocalise for guitar, violin and flute (2001) is an interesting example of such a smaller work, particularly because in a double sense it exhibits a conspicuous lack of complexes. It is built around one (ostinato) broken-chord motif in the guitar, above which a simple, lyrical melody unfolds in the flute. This is the first sense in which there is a lack of complexes: an extreme simplicity. The fact that Matthys “risks” possible (negative) value judgements in expressing such simplicity points to the second (and more generally typical of Matthys) sense in which there is a lack of complexes: Matthys apparently has no problem with (lyrical) simplicity, popular music etc…The cross-over approach typical of Matthys is also found in a number of his smaller-scale works, such as the project Bach Meets Jazz Again. Here, preludes by Bach are alternated with his own works (e.g., Sad Waltz) as well as those by Dirk Brossé and Toots Thielemans. The musical encounter is thus not so much found “in his own notes”, but rather in the broader context of the whole project.
Such projects illustrate, finally, one more characteristic that may be identified in the work of Marc Matthys: the composer seeks to break through barriers of musical prejudice, presenting music to a broad audience. His most recent project may be considered his most extensive to date: Crossings (2003), a project whose title may be considered something of a declaration of intent, referring as it does to the intersection of musical paths. The point of departure is Vivaldi’s popular Four Seasons, again combined with work by Matthys himself. Here, however, the separate movements are not alternated, as in Bach Meets Jazz Again, but are combined within one movement; for example, Vivaldi’s music is complemented with a (rhythmic) funk substructure. As a result, the interaction is more direct and more musically confrontational – in a word, more Marc Matthys.
List of works
Orchestra: 3 mouvements for Jazztrio & Big Band (1990); Four Impressions (1990); Contrasts for flute, guitar, vibraphone, jazz trio and philharmonic orchestra (1991); Reflections for jazz trio and symphonic orchestra (1992); Mosaic for pop sextet and symphonic orchestra (1993); Elegie and Rondo Briljante for piano and symphonic orchestra (2000); Prelude and Salsa for jazz sextet and wind dixtuor (2002); Vivaldi @ the movies: variations for strings (2003)
Chamber music: Introduction and Allegro for double bass and piano (1991); Nocturne and Dance for flute and string quartet (1998); Camel Caravan for flute, piano and strings (2001); Eclectic Dances for guitar and string quartet (2001); Vocalise for guitar, flute and violin (2001); Tradition for guitar and mandolin orchestra (s.d.); Impression I for horn, violin and piano (s.d.); Tango for flute, accordion and piano (s.d.); Suite for jazz quartet (s.d.)
Solo: Lamento for piano (2001); Una Noche en Salamanca for piano (2002); In het woud for flute (s.d.); Sad Waltz for piano (s.d.); Virtuoso for a singer (s.d.); What is Love for a singer (s.d.); Elegie and Rondo for piano (s.d.); Oud verhaal for piano (s.d.); Variations for piano (s.d.); Miami Beach for piano (2002); Vocalise for a singer (2002); Martinique for piano (2003)
For a more detailed list of works, please follow this link.
– P. DE GRYSE, Marc Matthys opent Campo, in Muziek en Woord, nr. 308, p. 11
– R. DE SCHEPPER, Verzoening tussen klassiek en jazz in het park, Het Laatste Nieuws, 17 augustus 1994
– S.N., Focus op Marc Matthys, Openbare bibliotheek Kortrijk, 2010, recensie in “Flöte Aktuell” 2015
– You Must Believe in Spring, Digi Classics DC97 Amb 10020
– SYMPHONIC JAZZ MUSIC BY MARC MATTHYS (trompet: Nic Fissette; altsax: Frank Vaganée; Big band Sound Wetteren o.l.v. Freddy Couché; piano: Marc Matthys; bas: Bart Denolf; drums: Tony Gyselinck; BRTN Philharmonic Orchestra o.l.v. Fernand Terby), Phaedra (In Flanders’ Fields, vol. 8) 92008
– Bach Meets Jazz Again, Maestro Music Productions MMP 010
– A Portrait of Marc Matthys, Phaedra 392001
– Famous Waltzes, Maestro Music Productions MMP 004.
– Trio Cucamonga Plays Frank Zappa, Phaedra 392001
– The Golden Sound of I Fiamminghi, RGIP 87020
– From I Fiamminghi with Love, SOF, 9102
– Rhapsody in Blue, RGIP 87076
– Classic HP-7700, Roland
– The other Side, TS 940101 en CODA 003
– The Concord Jazz Ensemble, TRAX 2072341
– Brussels Piano Festival III, AS CAP JR 1007/8
– Carnaval des Animaux, CX 4003
– Identities, RG 87169
– Crossings, Maestro Music Productions MMP 037
– Shades, Alley Cats 0027
– Echoes, Alley Cats 0126
– Best of Both Worlds (Marc Matthys European Quartet, Ali Ryerson and Peter Verhoyen), Alley Cats, PMP, 5411499510225
Texts by Frederik Deboes and Anna Vermeulen
Last update: 2017