Matt Penman, 27, started his musical endeavors at the age of 6 when his mother, a classical piano teacher, deemed him mature enough to cope with the inherent difficulties of a parent-child teaching situation. She was of course wrong and spent the next 10 years discovering this. Not a very rewarding period for Mrs Penman but one in which she may well look back on with rosy-tinted nostalgia in light of Matt’s later achievements. It was during this period that Matt learnt that he would never seriously be part of the classical music world, and started taking more notice of his father’s record collection. To the sounds of Cat Stevens, Bread, Wings, and of course every Beatles album ever released he proceeded to refine his appreciation for harmony and melody without realizing it.
The introduction by an insistent school teacher of Jazz music into the mix was of course life-altering, as now there was a legitimate reason to not talk to anybody. So it was to the records of Miles, Coltrane, Parker and their cohorts that he devoted his energies, while still acknowledging the power of Led Zeppelin, Guns ’N Roses and The Red Hot Chilli Peppers to make you move around a little (this was, after all, New Zealand - he was lucky to have any jazz albums at all).
All these ingredients manifested themselves in Matt’s composing, an addictive and tortuous habit that won’t go away, and in 1994 his co-led CD Urbanism was nominated for New Zealand Jazz Album of the Year. Various other awards and grants followed and he thought it was maybe a good time to move to the States. So on a scholarship from Berklee he spent a valuable year in Boston studying with Herb Pomeroy and Hal Crook before making the move to New York in 1995 where he has been resident ever since.
“It’s been fun - I mean, it’s a tough place as everyone knows, but nowhere do you have this much of an opportunity to be involved in so much creative music” says Penman. Matt spent the last 6 years traveling the world like a minstrel with his double bass. Among his favorite projects are the bands of Chris Cheek and Nils Wogram. He has also played in the bands of Kenny Werner, Wolfgang Muthspiel, Nneena Freelon (playing on her 2001 Grammy nominated release “Soulcall”), Kurt Rosenwinkel, David Berkman, Guillermo Klein, Mika Pohjola, Peter Bernstein and Sam Yahel amongst others.
Another co-led project Flipside led to the release of a self-titled CD on the Naxos Jazz label in 1998, but with The Unquiet (Fresh Sound Records 133) Penman makes his first complete offering as a leader, writing all the tunes and producing. This project sees him in gifted company with frequent collaborator Chris Cheek on sax, Kurt Rosenwinkel on guitar, Aaron Goldberg on piano and Rhodes, and Jeff Ballard on drums. Of his sidemen Penman states “I couldn’t have asked for a more vital crew. These guys live and play in the here and now and really brought my tunes to life”
Of influences he cites Keith Jarrett and Wayne Shorter as “shining examples of the highest creative beings”, while compositionally it’s the music of Weather Report, Radiohead and The Bulgarian Women’s Choir that stand out next to that of Monk and Miles. Outside of music, Matt’s main goal is to improve on his free-throw percentage of 10%.