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On The Corner Masthead

The Weight of History:
The Mattson 2 and A Love Supreme

June 5, 2019 | by Richard Scheinin

Brothers Jonathan and Jared Mattson — drummer and guitarist — get pegged as practitioners of “surf jazz.” They grew up in San Diego, so fans assume their jangly, wide-open improvisations are reflective of the Southern California beach vibe. But the truth is, Jonathan says, “We don’t know any surf music. I can do the tom-tom roll to ‘Wipe Out,’ but that’s about it.”

In fact, the brothers — known professionally as the Mattson 2 — are “absolute straight-out jazz nerds,” Jared explains. As toddlers, they danced in their playpen to Ornette Coleman: “I think it was the Science Fiction album, which is pretty grooving,” Jonathan says. Later, recordings by Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis got baked into their brains. So did albums by semi-obscure guitar geniuses: Gabor Szabo (whose eccentric, jangly sound helped inspire the Mattson 2’s concept) and Calvin Keys (the soul jazz pioneer whose 1971 album Shawn-Neeq is one of their obsessions.) Over the years, the now 33-year-old Mattsons — identical twins — have collaborated with indie and hip-hop musicians, including Chaz Baer (a.k.a. Toro y Moi) and Money Mark (one of the Beastie Boys’ inner circle). But jazz remains their lodestone, which is why — on June 14 at SFJAZZ — the two brothers will gather up all their energies to perform one of the landmark works of 20th century music: saxophonist John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, with special guest Keys joining them for the concert's second half.

That said, it’s going to be a dance show: “The way we play it, it relates to the average person and not to some crazy jazz-heads,” Jonathan says.

He and Jared understand that A Love Supreme, recorded in 1964, crystalizes the supernova sound of Coltrane’s saxophone and his classic quartet with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones. They also know that Coltrane intended the suite as an offering to God.

But the Mattsons — who perform Coltrane’s work as a duo, just guitar and drums — wonder whether A Love Supreme has become too weighted down by its history. When they play Coltrane’s suite, their approach is jam-bandy, spiced with breakbeats, psychedelic effects and stinging guitar notes out of Santana. The Mattsons aren’t looking to give listeners “some kind of super-esoteric experience,” Jonathan says. They aim to put the music “on a platter that’s more easily digestible,” Jared continues. Over the past two years, the brothers have performed A Love Supreme dozens of times at clubs and concert halls around the country and they have been struck by the response. It turns out that Coltrane — his name and his music, and especially A Love Supreme — enjoys a “huge cultural following” beyond the jazz world, Jared says. “The audience we are appealing to is an indie rock crowd. They’re super-open-minded, and a lot of them only got into jazz because they know the bands they listen to like jazz. But I still think it’s a major victory for jazz — that these people who aren’t hardcore jazz fans, they still totally resonate with A Love Supreme.”

You can get a sense of the response by watching a YouTube video of the Mattson 2, performing A Love Supreme at a club in Costa Mesa, CA, last October: When Jared mentions Coltrane’s name, the crowd hoots and hollers. When he begins to play the bluesy, grooving bass lines from the suite’s “Acknowledgement” movement, listeners start to dance in place, hoisting their beers and bobbing to the cosmic beat. (Jared plays a double-necked guitar; the bottom neck, with four strings, is an electric bass.)

In late 2016, when the brothers formulated their Coltrane project, Jared “zoomed in” on those Jimmy Garrison bass lines, isolating specific “melodic cells” to highlight and develop. Likewise, Jonathan put Elvin Jones’s performance “under the microscope,” examining the way Jones uses his sticks on cymbals to anticipate the entrance of Garrison’s bass in the opening movement. Again and again, the brothers extracted motifs from improvisations by Coltrane and his band mates, using them as compositional elements on which to build their own interpretation of the suite. Figuring out Tyner’s piano voicings and transferring them to guitar was the biggest challenge, and the key to the project — “the glue,” Jared says, that holds it together.

The Mattson 2 also absorbed lessons from recordings of A Love Supreme by artists other than Coltrane, including the saxophonist Branford Marsalis and the pianist and harpist Alice Coltrane, John’s wife until his death in 1967. Listening to Marsalis’s 2003 recording, the Mattsons were taken with the straight swing approach that the saxophonist utilizes in the suite’s “Resolution” movement — and brought it into their own performances. Alice Coltrane’s boiled-down version of A Love Supreme — recorded in 1971 for her album World Galaxy — had a broader impact on the Mattsons: “It’s the bass line and the drum beat that got to us,” Jared explains. “It almost has a hip-hop feel to it and we tried to translate that over to the first movement, ‘Acknowledgement.’ She turned that Jimmy Garrison line almost into a hip-hop sample, and the drums are super funky — not really a jazz feel at all. It opened our eyes to the grooviness of the whole piece.”

The Mattsons could host their own indie television show: Funny and smart, a little bit goofy and very honest, they finish one another’s thoughts and sentences, offering up all kinds of unusual and unexpected information. Take a look at an online interview with the twins titled “43 Questions with the Mattson 2,” filmed inside a tiny house on the campus of the University of California, San Diego:

During the conversation, Jonathan notes that his two-year-old daughter is named Naima, after the famous ballad by Coltrane. His favorite novel is The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami and the one piece of music from all of history that he wishes he had composed is Ionisation by Edgard Varèse. Asked to name his biggest inspiration, Jared cites the late Eddie Harris, who played electric saxophone and a reed trumpet, mixing jazz with R&B and funk; he was a virtuoso with a “no boxes” mentality. Jared also expresses admiration for Todd Rundgren and the Zombies (“Time of the Season”), and he notes that the only karaoke tune he and Jonathan can execute is “The Magnificent Seven” by the Clash.

Asked about the night they first rapped to the Clash tune in a karaoke bar, Jared — back on the phone with SFJAZZ — remembers thinking, “All I know is this weird esoteric jazz music or underground Brazilian music. I was like, ‘Dude, I don’t know any karaoke tunes!’ The only rap song we could come up with was ‘Magnificent Seven.’”

Growing up in San Diego, Jonathan and Jared were saturated by music. Their mother was into the Beatles and Elvis Presley. Their father loved Coltrane, Shostakovich and Debussy, as well as the Velvet Underground, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Country Joe and the Fish.

After dancing to Ornette Coleman in their playpen, they went to school together, attending the same classes from elementary school onward. At the University of California, San Diego, they enrolled in the “Jazz and the Music of the African Diaspora” program. They also came under the influence of Steven Schick, the contemporary classical percussionist and conductor, who spurred them toward their first guitar-drums duo interpretation of a major work: composer Louis Andriessen’s Workers Union. Jonathan recalls the challenge: “It was pages of meticulously notated rhythm” to which the Mattsons added their own dissonant counterpoint. “Steven called it our ‘surf guitar interpretation.’”

After graduating from UCSD in 2011, Jonathan and Jared attended the University of California, Irvine, enrolling in its integrated composition, improvisation and technology program. By the time they graduated in 2013 — each received a Master of Fine Arts degree in music — they were road warriors. The Mattsons have toured Japan more than 20 times. They have recorded eight albums, including Paradise, released this month, and they say it is their “twin-chronicity” — their special brand of synchronicity — that carries them from project to project.

Coltrane “reached the height of his musical communication with his band” on A Love Supreme, Jonathan says. Likewise, the Mattsons try to reach “a higher level of consciousness whenever we play the suite. Twin-chronicity is about subconscious communication, about musical communication and improvisation. It’s about using your twin connection to its advantage and trying to reach that pinnacle of expression.”

The Mattson 2 perform John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and more, featuring guest guitarist Calvin Keys, on 6/14