An accomplished jazz and classical musician, Matt Herskowitz delights global audiences as a versatile composer and performer, whose talents regularly embrace pop and world music in recordings and on the stage
Don’t even think about trying jazz improvisation unless you are incredibly talented. Even then, it may take years of hard work to master this art form. Matt Herskowitz is a true artist, one who has taken the technique and rigour of classical training to become a master of jazz.
Many regard jazz to be the classical music of North America. Jazz was born in New Orleans, capital of the southern state of Louisiana and the lively home of Creole culture. This culture was vital to the evolution of jazz, which became a sophisticated and enduring expression of creativity that has thrilled audiences for more than a century. Jazz is considered to have crystallised between 1896 and 1917, thanks largely to Creole musicians, many of whom – like Herskowitz – were classically trained. Many Creole musicians attended the Conservatoire de Paris, and this cross-pollination of traditional European techniques with local musical exuberance steeped in Gospel, work songs and the blues became the potent fusion that today is known as jazz.
A prodigy from an otherwise non-musical family, Herskowitz’s talent was apparent at a young age, and he and his perfect pitch graduated from the prestigious Juilliard School in New York and studied at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Born in New York, he has made Montreal – host of the world’s largest jazz festival – his home since 1999.
Herskowitz has been described as exploring the area where classical music and jazz overlap. Though he was enrolled in a classical programme at Julliard, he and friends David Rozenblatt and Mat Fieldes always enjoyed playing jazz together and created The Matt Herskowitz Trio, a group which has performed around the world regularly since it was formed in 1996.
He has worked with big names in the music industry, such as Barry Manilow, and The Matt Herskowitz Trio collaborated with the singer on his Grammy-nominated album, In the Swing of Christmas, which was released in 2007. Remembering that time, he recalls: “The drummer in my trio, David Rozenblatt, was playing with Barry in Las Vegas, and he gave him a copy of our then-new album Forget Me Not. Barry loved it and decided he wanted to feature me and the trio on his upcoming Christmas album for Hallmark. He made some really great jazz arrangements for us, creating lots of spaces for big piano solos that go through three or four key changes in very fast double-time swing tempos.”
After composing a piece inspired by the music of jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, who was one of the leading exponents of cool jazz before he passed away in 2012, Herskowitz later met Brubeck at Carnegie Hall in 1999 and Herskowitz went on to play many more compositions by Brubeck.
The Matt Herskowitz Trio has performed at most of the leading jazz and chamber music festivals to be found in Europe, Canada and the States. Working with friends Rozenblatt and Fieldes and inspired by their mutual enthusiasm, the trio frequently jammed together as students and then started playing at a number of small, informal events in the city of New York. The trio’s reputation received a major boost in 2003 with an official concert in New York, where they collaborated with Lew Soloff, the great jazz trumpeter who was probably best known for his work with the rock group Blood, Sweat and Tears. After this concert, Soloff became a mentor and collaborated with the trio for the next decade.
In addition to the Manilow Christmas album, the trio has also released three albums under their own name and contributed to a number of other successful recordings. The trio recently released an album called Bach Reimagined, working with Andrea Griminelli the virtuoso flutist. The recording evolved from meeting Griminelli at a concert in Germany, and the flutist admired Herskowitz’s jazz arrangements of various Bach pieces which led to a collaboration.
Music for a myriad of art forms
As a composer, Herskowitz has made contributions to many other art forms, including dance, musical theatre and film. He provided the music for a stage production called Bella: The Colour of Love, which was based on the life story of Bella Chagall, who was married to the renowned visual artist Marc Chagall. In creating the score, Herskowitz had to compose music, that was almost another character in the show, expressing the emotions and helping to tell the story of Bella Chagall without ever being intrusive or getting in the way of the narrative and dialogue. In composing for film, Herskowitz has explored how to balance his own musical voice while supporting the director’s vision for the project.
Musical creations are really like food recipes
Herskowitz credits his unique sound to being steeped in both classical and jazz traditions. He thinks of his creations as being a little like recipes, where he takes known ingredients, but blends them in new and exciting ways, adding in different flavours from a range of musical genres that appeal to a wide range of listeners. He believes that when collaborating, the combination of the musical parts is much greater than its sum, and this leads to synergies that connect deeply with audiences.
The 2010 album Jersualem Trilogy was also a milestone for Herskowitz. Through working with the Lebanese singer Marcel Khalife, Herskowitz had developed an appreciation for the beauty and complexity of Arab music. Khalife became another mentor, helping with mastering new styles of rhythm through which Herskowitz explored how Jewish and Arab music evolved from the same traditions.
Classical v Jazz debate
Although Herskowitz has been criticised at times for either not being jazz enough for the jazz purist or not classical enough for the classical purists, he believes audiences have become more relaxed and more prepared to enjoy music that straddles different genres and styles. He explains: “Of course my work has been criticized – that’s the nature of the beast! I’ve occasionally been criticized by people who are, and I’m not trying to be negative here, more purist in their tastes, from both the jazz and classical sides. Basically, I’ve been guilty of not being “jazz” enough for the traditional jazz side, and of not being “classical” enough for the traditional classical side – both of which are true. However, I’ve noticed that such attitudes have relaxed in recent years, with a new audience more open to artists that blend styles and genres.”
Today Herskowitz continues to push musical boundaries, drawing on his unlimited creativity and his dedication to exploration and discovery. Herskowitz is a supremely talented chameleon, equally at home performing alone, in small groups or with orchestras, a consummate jazz artist who combines classical technique with exhilarating improvisation that draws on a wide variety of musical genres. He is proud of his compositions and of the music he has created with fine musicians with whom he feels privileged to have worked. Herskowitz plans only to continue making as much music as possible and embarking on many new projects with his jazz trio.