Music News

Tea Leaf Green's Reed Mathis on the soul of improvisation

Reed Mathis talks about improvisation like it's a mystical religion. The bassist for the San Francisco-based quintet Tea Leaf Green and former frontman of the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey sees a great deal of power in making music on the spot, and that passion will likely be front and center when Tea Leaf Green plays a string of dates in Colorado this week. While the band is expecting to release a new full-length album later this year, Mathis insists that none of that music will figure into these shows.

Instead, he says, the concerts will be a mix of old and new, tracks pulled off studio and live recordings, as well as fresh tunes that didn't make the cut for the new album. And, of course, there will be plenty of improv to boot. We caught up with Mathis to talk about his history before Tea Leaf Green, the future direction of the band and the appeal of making up music as he goes.

Westword: You're a late arrival, in a sense, having joined the band in 2007 after spending years fronting the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey ensemble. Can you talk a bit about your roots and your musical experiences before Tea Leaf Green?

Reed Mathis: I started playing music when I was about three. My mother and father are conductors, orchestral conductors and choral conductors, and their parents are as well. I'm a fifth-generation professional musician, but I'm the first not to be a classical musician. I was raised in that environment, and I listened to all kinds of music. When I was seventeen, I started Jacob Fred, and did that for fifteen years. And, you know, we did a lot of weird shit all over the world [laughs].

Why do you think you veered away from the realm of classical music?

Because I'm an improviser. I was noticeably an improviser at the age of five. I was frequently reprimanded by private teachers and by orchestra conductors for improvising in the context of classical music, and when I started trying to play rock and roll with my middle-school friends, I was improvising when we were trying to play Led Zeppelin songs and stuff. They'd say, 'That's not the bass line,' and I was like, 'I hope you know that the members of Led Zeppelin are improvising. If we're going to pay tribute to them, shouldn't we do that? Or should we just copy them?'

So I was always an improviser from the very earliest age, and that's unfortunately not a part of classical music anymore, and it's in danger of not being a part of rock and roll anymore, even though improvisation is where both classical music and rock and roll formed. So, you know, I'm kind of out on a limb. I'm one of the last in a species.

It seems like the bass wouldn't be the first pick as an instrument for someone with such a bent toward improv.

I wouldn't say that at all. I mean, all music is made on the spot.

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A.H. Goldstein