Iain Matthews and Searing Quartet: Joy Mining / Iain Matthews and Egbert Derix: In the Now
Iain Matthews finds a rare musical soul-mate in Dutch pianist Egbert Derix. The two albums resulting from this unexpected collaboration rank among the best of Matthew's career.
Omnivore has quickly established itself as one of the premiere re-issue labels of this decade. Doing what Rhino did so well in the 1990s and 2000s, bringing long overlooked works back into the spotlight, Omnivore offers an even more eclectic collection of performers meriting re-examined attention. More significantly, the label has released a number of excellent recent works by significant performers that were previously available overseas but not in the US. Perhaps they were too smart or idiosyncratic for release on larger domestic labels. I’m reminded of how Columbia records decided that Leonard Cohen’s 1985 album Various Positions was not commercial enough for American audiences, so didn’t bother releasing it outside of Canada. That’s the album that spawned “Hallelujah,” the most oft-covered song of the past decade.
It’s not impossible that a much broader American audience could discover Iain Matthews through the US release of this pair of albums, each less than a decade old but previously unavailable outside of the European market. It would be about damn time if they do.
Iain Matthews has been around the block of the music business machine a few times. A founding member of legendary British folk group Fairport Convention, he left that band after their first album to follow his muse into regional American music. His next group, Matthews Southern Comfort, had a few minor hits at the turn of the ‘60s to the ‘70s, after which he released a prolific collection of solo records, with 1973’s Valley Hi, co-produced with Michael Nesmith, earning Matthew’s some credit among the originators of what would become country rock. Never a household name and perpetually frustrated by lack of success, Matthews’ career in the ‘80s and ‘90s was one of searching for a definitive voice in the genres of folk and pop.
Surprisingly, perhaps, to those who have long followed his career, Matthews finds his voice on these two albums, in collaboration with a European light jazz master of piano, Egbert Derix, and his band the Searing Quartet. Joy Mining and In the Now are complex, evocative, and wholly successful albums. Matthews calls the former “the best album of my career” and there is something much deeper than pride in the immediate product guiding his reflection. Matthews is in a position to contemplate the whole of his career and to view that journey of perpetual striving with clear eyes. In these two albums and in the ongoing collaboration with Derix, Matthews, a restless artistic soul, has indeed found what he’s looking for.
More than anything, Joy Mining is an album about the choices we make and how we must live with them, regardless of outcome. For Matthews, having traveled so long a journey of so many choices, he comes to realize that there are, ultimately, only two choices at hand: contentment or discontent. On this album, and on its follow-up, Matthews chooses the former, his worn but not wearied voice conveying the warmth and finality of contentment after long strife. Both “In Spite of Myself” and “My Town” deal in “you can’t go home again” reflections of escape from an industrial town upbringing, “breaking away on borrowed wings” as he sings on the former while noting “my town was never expected to last” in the latter. Sometimes the choices are forced upon us early and leave us grasping for meaning or certainty. In “Waves”, Matthews sings, “I got stuck on the wreckage/ Of what I’d become” while explaining “I’m not creating waves / I’m just a stubborn man.”
“Fishing” offers a metaphor for the joy of perpetually striving for something greater but offers little of the melancholy of other “if wishes were fishes” type ponderings. Matthews sticks close to his literal subject, basking in the Zen-like satisfaction of the act itself, where one has “Tossed out your line and went with the flow / You don’t give a damn if a whale or a minnow / Is biting.” This depth of contentment extends into the several songs on the record that pay tribute to Matthew’s wife Marly and the healing powers he has found in their love. Most poignantly, “Reservoir”, celebrates the calm port that is their relationship, his references to his repeated and failed many searches for meaning giving way to a mantra of wishes for continued peace, 16 lines each beginning with the prayerful plea of “May". In the Now continues the reflection on choices made and lives done and undone. The song “Joy Mining” appears here, a warning against running from one’s past and a calling, rather, to embrace those joys remembered and to make them part of those in the present. Matthews embraces his musical past on two numbers here, “When the Floyd Were on the Prowl” and “Pebbles in the Road". The first offers a playful remembrance of the mind-blowing performances of the Syd-led band and their wryly careerist reworking of the “Tune in / Turn on” mantra, while the latter offers a reflection of the 1970s Los Angeles music scene. Matthews sums up the life’s lessons of these experiences by saying “In spite of, not because of all / Our innocence and awe / We reached an understanding.” “Gone Is Gone” closes the second album aptly, amplifying the lesson that Matthews weaves through both records: live in the now because “Gone is gone / No regrets / Gone is gone.”
This is music for grown ups. No youthful pretention here, just wall to wall instrumental finesse matched with learned lyrical reflections and appreciations. Egbert Derix’s piano, Peter Hermesdorf’s sax playing, Norbert Leurs’ bass, and Sjoerd Rutten’s understated drums provide masterful accompaniment on Joy Mining. Derix takes on the instrumental composition and arrangement duties for In the Now,, rejoined by Leurs on bass and accompanied by another top-notch band including Jasper van Hulten on drums, Leo Janssen on tenor saxophone, Ton Engels on guitar. Strings throughout the album are supplied by the Limburgs Strijkkwartet.
Fans of Boz Scaggs, Mose Allison, Donald Fagen, and Billy Joel should give these two albums a try. Matthew’s voice shares much of Scaggs’ tonal nuance while the piano and instrumental accompaniments share in the light jazz flare of Allison and Fagen’s work. Lyrically, Matthews shares Joel’s eye for small town American striving, but with his reflections tempered by an Eastern mystical calm. In stepping out of his long-established and expected comfort zone, Matthews has found a rare musical soul-mate in Egbert Derix. These records deserve to be heard.