What do Nancy Wilson, the King of Thailand, Jackie McLean, Frank Sinatra, the Armed Forces Bicentennial Band and Jennifer Hart have in common?
They have all had the opportunity to be the beneficiary of pianist-arranger-composer Llew Matthews’ musical talents. A very skilled musician, Llew Matthews is a major asset no matter what the musical situation and he has appeared in a countless number of settings through the years.
Born in New York City, Llew remembers, “I started playing ukulele when I was four. On it I learned to play a lot of standards. A little later I wanted to play trumpet but I ended up playing French horn because that was the instrument that was available in school. I also sang with a neighborhood doo-wop group. I played French horn in junior high school, wound up with a scholarship to the High School Of Music & Arts and began to be very interested in composing, studying extensively. I also started messing around with piano near the end of high school. The first jazz record I heard was Ahmad Jamal’s ‘Poinciana,’ followed by Kind Of Blue and Gil Evans’ records. After hearing music of that caliber, it inspired me to develop quickly as a writer and a pianist.”
Soon, Llew was writing for a 37-piece band by hand. Although trained primarily in classical music, he had no difficulty switching to jazz. “I could never understand why there was this wall between jazz and classical players. Discovering jazz clarified everything for me.” He attended the New York College of Music and worked with alto great Jackie McLean and the masterful trumpeter Kenny Dorham.
While serving an eight-year stint in the Air Force, Llew had opportunities to do a great deal of writing in addition to playing French horn. “In 1975 I was asked to arrange for the Armed Forces Bicentennial Band, a multi-service orchestra which had a 97-piece symphonic band and a 40-member chorus. That was really something. Frank Sinatra performed with the orchestra at one point as did Ray Charles. Also while in the Air Force, I was stationed in the Philippines and had an opportunity to arrange for the King of Thailand who had written a bunch of songs that were well known in that country.
After being honorably discharged from the Air Force in 1977, Llew Matthews settled in Southern California and he has rarely had time off ever since. At first he played sophisticated rock & roll, reggae and r&b with the two-keyboard band Katz & Jammers. He worked on albums for the Discovery label led by Charles Owens, Carl Burnett, Ernie Andrews and Paul Humphrey. Next up was an association with Lena Horne in the show “Pal Joey, 79,” and lots of gigging with Bobby Hutcherson and Kenny Burrell. Llew also co-conducted the Jazz Ensemble at UCLA from 1999 to 2004 with trombonist-arranger Garnett Brown under the leadership of Kenny Burrell.
In March 1987, Llew got a call to work with Nancy Wilson. For the past 20 years, he has toured the world, recorded and been Nancy Wilson’s musical director, pianist, conductor and arranger. “With Nancy, I have the opportunity to perform many different types of music. She takes the audience and the musicians on different journeys from different vantage points, and really enjoys what she does.” While with Nancy Wilson, Llew has worked with symphony orchestras and such big bands as those of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman and the Diva band. In each case, he has written arrangements for the different groups. In Nancy Wilson’s recent 70th birthday concerts at Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl, Llew performed with such major singers as Kurt Elling, Patti Austin, Nnenna Freelon, Natalie Cole and Dianne Reeves.
Llew met Jennifer Hart a few years ago, they hit it off immediately, and have worked together regularly since, most recently naming their group Hart & Soul. Their inspired collaborations not only give Matthews opportunities to stretch out as a pianist and to write arrangements for the singer, but he also joins her on occasional vocal duets. Their very well received concert at the Orange County Pavilion has been made into a DVD and is available.
Llew Matthews, who has recorded a series of CDs for the Japanese market with such players as Kenny Burrell, Buddy Collette, Hubert Laws and Kevin Eubanks, has long been recognized for his talents by his fellow musicians. His playing, writing and overall contributions to music are beyond measure, a joy to experience and a very valuable asset to every musical setting.