In a city filled with bass players, what Matt Skellenger does is wholly unique – from his weekly solo bass performances at Breakfast on Broadway in Englewood, to the envelope-pushing, mathematically insane compositions he crafts. You need look no further than his upcoming release, Subspace Transmission, where he’s sprinkled in tunes in meters like 19 and 23, just because he can — and he can do it well. Here, Matt talks about his deep love of former educator Ron Miles, what it’s like to be an educator himself, and why this album is one you should definitely get ASAP…
French Davis: What number album is this for you?
Matt Skellenger: This is going to be seven. I released just a solo album back in 2003. The first album with Ron (Miles, Denver-based coronetist and educator who died in 2022), the Parentheticals album was 2009, and then The Owls Are Not What They Seem also had Ron on it. New Radio also had Ron on it. Vitality was the first release without him, with Matt Reid playing trumpet and effects pedals and stuff. And then we also did a trio and dual album last year, and then this will be the seventh one with the full band. So pretty psyched about it.
FD: And this album is a tribute to Ron?
MS: Yeah, totally. So it’s dedicated to him and I originally was going to record a couple of his tunes anyway, and I was going to reach out to him and just talk to him about it, and I unfortunately never got the chance to talk to him about it. Then as I was working on the album is when I got the news from Adam (Bartczak, trombonist on this album) that Ron had passed away and specifically I had been working on the title track “Subspace Transmission,” and so it felt appropriate I think, to dedicate it to them and include him on that track. So we ended up putting two of his tunes on there. “Close” is just a duo track with Matt Reid and myself, and then the last track is “Jesus, I Just Want to Go to Sleep”, which is just a solo bass track.
FD: The solo bass, it was really beautiful. Have you done it that way for a while?
MS: I’ve been playing that one for a long time, man. I think I actually played that for my senior recital in front of Ron back in 2002 or something like that. And I’ve always played it at solo bass gigs. I always just think it’s been a fun solo bass one to do, but I’ve always done a little bit differently. I didn’t really include his whole beginning intro when I had been playing it by myself, so that was actually the first time I did that, the whole almost sort of free section at the beginning before the actual kind of tune starts. But it’s one I’ve been playing forever. And also we recorded most of these tracks…geez, three weeks after we found out about Ron passing away. So it was still pretty raw and intense. So that was actually, I just did one take of it and I just kind of felt like that was the energy that I wanted to put out there. I guess.
FD: Talk a little bit more about Ron, about what he meant to you about him as a mentor and his influence in your music.
MS: Oh, man. I mean, I can’t say how much… He influenced me so much, especially as a teenager that was searching for new sounds, searching for maybe where to go and study. I went to one of those Ginger Baker solo in the park things he did in the ’90s where Ron was the musical director. My mom took me when I was in high school, and that was the first time I heard Ron play. And that was really what made me want to go to Metro and stay in town and study with Ron. And I think Ron was just… So many people talked about how giving he was at his time when I was a student, incredibly giving, incredibly accepting of what I was doing. Doing weird electric bass stuff is pretty non-traditional when it comes to the jazz world – even just the educational world at a university was very classically based back then. But he really encouraged me to keep doing it. He was always encouraging me to push myself and do what I wanted to do rather than what typically you might hear from traditionalists or whatever. And then I think even more of an influence was when, after college, we just started getting together and playing some of my tunes and he was really excited to work with me and really helped again, like push me to release an album and start to move in that direction of writing music and being a band leader. And he was incredibly gracious with his time and effort on those first three recordings. Yeah, man. I mean, I could keep going and going about it really. And I think what’s so amazing about Ron is like you hear these stories like this from so many people too.
FD: What do you think his loss means? What do you think the vacuum is now in Denver with him being gone?
Matt: Right now, I think it’s very apparent that we lost a giant of a person. It’s really awesome to see all of these things happening that are remembering Ron and tributes to Ron. And I mean, the thing that I hope is that people really do get into his music and check out his music more as time goes on. I always felt like, as amazing as Ron was as an educator and as a player, his compositions were equally as amazing, and we have this huge catalog of music to remember him by… I was super psyched when Blue Note released his last album (Rainbow Sign, 2020). I really thought that was going to be… I thought the Blue Note album and the momentum from that was going to keep that happening. So I hope that happens, and I hope that people continue his legacy in Denver and in Colorado of not being too closed off to the younger generations. Sharing your experiences and your knowledge with people that are seeking it. I think continuing his tradition of playing original modern jazz, whatever that means. I think he was one of the main people on the scene that paid respect to the masters that came before, but definitely was always forward thinking and pushing forward and creating music that resonates in modern times.
FD: As an educator, how has he impacted you? How are you being the torch bearer for that next generation?
MS: Well, I think one of the things about Ron that I try to emulate the most is his kindness with his students and his ability to connect with so many students. And it doesn’t have to be on this level of, “Are you good enough to play at this professional level” or whatever it might be at the university level. But more it’s about connecting and making music and sharing those experiences with each other. So well, one of the things we’re doing at Swallow Hill, actually the session I’m doing is a Ron Miles Jazz ensemble, and so we’ve got a group that’s got drums, bass, keyboard, two guitar players and a trombone player, and we’re just playing Ron’s tunes and trying to learn more about his music. But I think that’d be the biggest thing for me is just his kindness and how he was such a gentle, kind educator who never really made his students feel bad, always encouraging.
FD: Talk to me about your track selection of his album and some of the other stuff.
MS: So I feel like there was a little more intention, I guess with this album on a variety of scales. Obviously the dedication to Ron and wanting to really feature him, but then also there’s a lot of numericals things, and I guess I mean somewhat of a story of the time right before COVID-19 until now. The first tune is all in 19 (time signature), and I wrote it kind of a couple months right before all the Covid-19 stuff happened. So I kind of felt like that was the beginning of the writing process of this album. The second track is Ron’s tune, “Close.” I wanted to put that up front because obviously of what happened and how we wanted to make this album feature his music and him. Then the third tune is in 23, and since the album is released in ’23, it felt like it was appropriate to have that be the next track.
And then from there, when I originally first started doing the album, I was thinking about, I wanted to have a couple Ron’s tunes on there. I was thinking about this idea of this passing down the torch of some of my mentors. And one of the other mentors of mine is Victor Wooten. I’ve been out to a bunch of his camps and studied with him a lot, and he’s been a real big influence too. So like the next two tracks, “Fleckin” and “Santiago” are influenced by The Flecktones and by Victor Wooten. Then the next track is “Weezie and Willow,” which Weezie is a nickname for Louise, my fiance, and Willow is our cat, and it’s a very playful kind of duet between my brother and myself and really reminded me of watching the two of them play together and spending a lot of time with them at home during the COVID times. The next track “Eve” is written by Matt Reid, our trumpet player, and I guess that felt like those couple tracks were more family oriented… The “Lion’s Tooth” one — so, the coffee shop at Mighty Fine Studios (in Denver, where the albums was recorded) is called the Dandy Lion, and so we were going there getting coffee quite a bit, and another name for a dandelion is the Lion’s Tooth. So that’s kind of where that came from. And then “Connectivity” was the first tune that I brought to the group after COVID and was the first tune we kind of started playing again and trying to reconnect. And then after that is “DT,” which was written for Demaryius Thomas, it’s an 88-beat phrase because of his number. And that was another, I guess, person who passed while I was working on this music that really hit me. He was one of my favorite Broncos and just a tragic thing, I think. And then that leads into “Subspace Transmission.” And then the idea with that one was, I was saying that was the tune I was working on when I heard about Ron’s passing. So Colin (Bricker, Producer on the album) did a really incredible job of putting Ron’s tracks into that tune, really makes it sound like Ron’s playing with the group. He’s got a really nice solo in the middle. … So, I drive down Monaco Parkway a lot to take my stepdaughter to Denver School of the Arts and pick her up from DSA. So I’m driving by Ron’s house a ton and listening to this music, and there’s like this shout chorus after Ron’s solo where the whole group kind of plays the shout chorus, and I started singing along with that shout chorus. “Ron Miles, we love him. Thank you.” And so that’s where that kind of came from, and it just kind of seemed, I don’t know, I guess the thought was that the Subspace Transmission is like we’re communicating with Ron on this other level, possibly beyond the grave or whatever, and then our response to him was the shout chorus of the Ron Miles “we love and thank you.” And then after that he comes back in for a line for a little bit and then kind of fades out, and then we finish the tune.
FD: Wow. That’s a beautiful way to approach that for sure.
MS: Thank you, I appreciate that.
FD: I really did enjoy the album pretty much top to bottom. You got some great stuff on here, Matt. It makes me wonder, why have you remained so committed to staying in Denver?
MS: Huh, that’s a good question. Honestly, I think it’s been a combination of, it may be somebody who is really rooted in my hometown and really likes my hometown and likes where I am. Part of it is I think, my dedication to teaching instead of just dedicated to playing. And part of it, I mean, I think is some luck too. And just that it just hasn’t happened where I’ve had more success outside of Colorado. And a lot of it is just I haven’t put myself out there I think too, in some of those other markets. I mean, I think most of the time I always like to look at it as it’s probably on me that I’m not putting enough out there to make that happen. But you never know. I think sometimes some of it’s a little bit of the luck of the draw, and some of it is my choice to stay here, to stay and teach and be rooted here, I think.
The Matt Skellenger Group releases Subspace Transmission on March 8, with a release party on March 10 at Dazzle Jazz in Denver. Matt also plays a solo bass brunch at Breakfast on Broadway every Sunday. For more information, check out MattSkellenger.com.