Downbeat May 2016
When trombonist Matthew Hartnett moved to New York from Houston in 2010, he sat in on a few jam sessions, suggesting tunes used in similar settings in his hometown of Houston: Freddie Hubbard’s soul-meets funk vehicle “Red Clay,” for example, or Wayne Shorter’s bass line-centric “Footprints.”
“Guys would either not want to play the tune because [it] didn’t have quote unquote ‘enough changes’ or they didn’t know the tune,” recalls Hartnett. “In Houston, you’re going to hear tunes that are more groove oriented. You’re not going hear a lot of heavy swing and fast, frantic music, because it doesn’t fit the culture of the region, which is like, blues and R&B and screw music,” he said, referencing DJ Screw’s early ‘90s hip-hop movement. “People like things to feel good.”
Rather than adjust his playing to better fit the more academic style of playing he first encountered in New York, Hartnett clung to what he describes as the “gritty soulfulness” and “country swag” he heard in his own music. He identified other horn players who shared his musical taste and established Team Horn Section, a tight-knit group of like-minded horn players who have since worked as the go-to horns for artists like Lauryn Hill and Talib Kweli. It wasn’t until a Team Horn Section work lull in 2013 that Hartnett opted to write material for a solo album. The result, Southern Comfort, arrived in February 2016.
Replete with jazz riffs on slow jam grooves (“She’s In Spain”) and hip-hop concepts (“Da Crib”), the project reflects Harnett’s musical roots. And yet, he says it wouldn’t exist as such had he not relocated five years ago.
“It’s a little backwards, but I feel like I came to New York and I became more country, more soulful,” he explains, adding that he joined a shout band in New York, delving into a form of Southern music he’d never tried playing when he actually lived below the Mason Dixon Line.
“Pretty much whoever you are, New York embraces that … I think I was free to become more of myself when I got here.”
Born in the Western Louisiana town of Lake Charles, Hartnett spent his childhood listening to ‘60s and ‘70s R&B with his mom, hip-hop with his friends and playing classical and jazz trombone in grade school. Summers spent back in Lake Charles added hymns to the mix courtesy of vacation Bible School, plus brass band and Mardi Gras Indian music he picked up on the playground.
By the time he got into jazz as a music student at Texas Southern University, Hartnett’s ears and skills gave him the right sensibilities to find local horn section work with college friends. It sustained him financially and satisfied him artistically, he said, admitting he always thought of himself more “as a band guy” than a soloist.
When club gigs started drying up in Houston and he headed North, Hartnett found it to be fertile ground to establish another horn section for hire. This time, he had the chops to snag bigger touring gigs while making a name for himself and his collective of horn players with popular weekly gigs at the Village Underground.
Members of the group appear on the Louisiana-inspired “New Sunlight in Lake Charles (NCLS),” while the opener, “I Surrender All,” showcases Hartnett’s flexibility and unique voice when, for example, his trombone lines glow with the same celestial textures as the organ that joins him.
“What I really got out of being in New York just pouring myself into being me,” he muses. Focused on blending R&B, brass band music and new elements like shout music, Hartnett says, rounded out his sound and allowed him to develop it in the context of Southern Comfort.
“I thought I was complete in Houston,” he says. “But I really became a complete trombone player in New York.”