The Strums and Strings of Matt Panayides

Matt Panayides a

The hip, takes-you-on-a-ride “Seoul Soul” features, early in, a vibeful solo from guitarist Matt Panayides. In “Out of My Hands,” the tick-tock of the sticks is soon met with a lyrical sax (front man Matt’s habit of including sax prominently proves to be a wise and solid choice). He picks his way through a sweet solo with some cool triplets. These and more tracks appear on 2011’s CD “Tapestries of Song.”

2015 brings the album “Conduits” where, on the gentle “Heny’s Tune,” he is again paired beautifully with the sax. A brief flurry with an uptick in tempo marks the climax, which quickly settles down and the song concludes with Matt’s mellow picking. “Awaken” is appropriately swift and energized; Matt prefers to live in the high end of the register, and he delivers his notes with perfect timing.

A leader’s musical chops lie not only in his or her playing and composing abilities, but choosing the right instrumentation so that everybody shines. It’s the story here, whether sunlit or illuminated by the moon.

What did your early musical training consist of?

I had a few piano lessons as a young child, around the age of six. I was not very disciplined about it, and I didn’t take them for too long. But I do remember imitating sounds of nature on the piano (like thunderstorms), and getting my grandmother to sit down and listen to me play these sounds for her.

Somewhere around the sixth grade I rented a guitar from a local store and took a few lessons. I was hooked immediately. I still remember the smell of the acoustic guitar in the case and the great feeling I got when I could get my fingers to play a chord.

Through middle school I also studied percussion. In high school, with very little direction, I got motivated to practice a lot. A real turning point for me was spending a summer at Interlochen [Center for the Arts, Michigan] where I was exposed to a much larger world of music.

What attracted you to guitar?

I think Led Zeppelin is what really got me into guitar. I remember my cousin playing cassette tapes of the band for me in his basement and just becoming enthralled with the sounds. Checking out Jimmy Page began a musical journey which led to a bunch of different guitar players such as Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Santana.  Then I heard Coltrane, and that changed everything.

What is the most often-asked questions by your jazz students?

Actually, a lot of my students are more interested in rock and pop music than jazz. But the ones that are interested in jazz are usually already solid players in their own way.

The questions they have for me involve trying to figure out how to play jazz chord changes and how to increase their chord vocabulary.

I try to pass along the knowledge I received in my studies from my mentors, as well as lessons gleaned from my experiences as a musician.

Who are your mentors?

My two main musical mentors are Rodney Jones and Garry Dial. Garry Dial is an amazing pianist and educator, and he was one of the first teachers I met when coming to NYC. He was teaching a jazz harmony and improvisation class, and I learned so much about music from him. Throughout my studies at Manhattan School of Music I remained in touch with him and studied privately with him. I still go to him for lessons from time to time. He is a fount of knowledge and inspiration.

Rodney Jones was my main guitar mentor during my early studies in New York. He turned me on to a lot of heavy concepts on the guitar, and really had an effect on my picking and technique. Rodney is a really deep thinker regarding the guitar, music and life in general. Studying with him in my early 20s definitely had an impact on me.

What themes inspire you when you compose?

I am inspired by many different kinds of themes when I compose, and this is always changing. Composing for me is always a bit of a mysterious process for me, and on some level I intentionally leave it that way.

When I have an idea for a composition it will come in a moment of inspiration. Perhaps I’ll be practicing scales, or working on some standard tunes, or just strumming some chords.

If an idea appears, I try to chase it down and get it down on paper. Or, with increasing frequency, I’ll record it on my phone capturing the essence of the idea. Over time, these different ideas accumulate; sometimes they combine or lead to new ideas or forms. And when I start to get a backlog of these, I begin the process of finding the clear musical threads which I hope to turn into compositions that I can play with my group.

Usually I am imagining the instrumentation as I am hearing the initial idea. Sometimes, though, I think of the instrumentation after the idea comes and how various instruments may better express the musical thought or concept. 

So what bridge were you “walking across with no money” and why did that inspire a song?

There is a bridge along the Hudson River in Manhattan. I still remember that day clearly, meeting with a good friend of mine, saxophonist Alec Haavik, and having this great green curry. I walked from 120th St. to my apartment on 142nd St. crossing this small bridge.

It was a time of life where I really didn’t have any money, and wasn’t sure where life would take me next. I sat down in my room and that melody and those chords came to me. I find writing a ballad extremely challenging, but I do like how this one came together.

In unison with the sax on “The Past is Obdurate”- why do you think that, tonally, guitar and sax pair up so well?

I think tenor saxophone and guitar go together especially well! There’s a similarity in range…but beyond that the articulation, so much of the jazz language was created on the saxophone, and I have long sought to emulate the saxophonist’s articulations, phrasing and even harmonic language and approach. So it feels natural to play unison lines together. Plus, Rich Perry makes everything sound good.

I’ve always loved the way sax and guitar sound together. There’s a certain register, especially with the tenor sax, that is nearly identical. I’m often thinking about the saxophone, and how to articulate that musical language on the guitar.

The lowdown on your band?

My new project that I’m writing for and beginning to play some gigs with is called “Field Theory.” Joining me will be the great saxophonist Matt Vashlishan, who will be playing a lot of EWI (electronic wind instrument) on my tunes. Vash is such a musical virtuoso. He plays music on such a high level that I can’t help but to play better when I’m around him. And he’s also interested in pushing the boundaries of what is considered “jazz” in order to make something fresh and new.

I’m also been playing a lot with Mark Ferber on drums and I hope to continue to do so. He’s got to be one of the most in-demand drummers on the scene today, and it’s easy to understand why: he has such great ears and a deep rhythmic feel that makes everything feel great. His instincts are so attuned to the music that he can turn on a dime into a different rhythmic space if the moment calls for it. And he very quickly is able to digest the tunes that I write, instantly moving into the space I was imagining with very little explanation necessary.

I’m also really psyched to have Bob Sabin involved with my current project. He and I go way back to my early days in New York. His bass playing has such a deep sound and anchoring rhythmic feel, yet he is very creative and melodic. He has a very sophisticated harmonic palette at his disposal, but he uses it sparingly, only when it serves the music. I’ve heard him play a beautiful solo with only one note, and he can tear through changes with the best of them when required.

In the past there have been several musicians that I’ve utilized in different performances. Rich Perry has been the main tenor player of the group.  He is such a masterful, creative improviser and musician. Also, Mark Ferber has been holding down the drum chair for quite a while now. He flows like water through and around my music, laying a fluid rhythmic foundation while propelling the band forward in space and time. But I’ve had a lot of other great drummers play in my groups such as Christian Coleman, Jeff Davis, Yutaka Uchida Alex Ritz and Jon DiFiore.

I have had the great fortune of a variety of bass players joining the group including Steve LaSpina, Bob Sabin, Thomson Kneeland and more recently Evan Gregor and John Tate. All of these players are virtuosos on their instruments and bring their own voice to the musical conversation. 

Your CD in progress- what theme are you going for?

I am currently working a CD of new music. At the moment I’m writing music with a very electric type of sound. I’m excited to be working with Vashlishan who will using the EWI to bring a different sonic texture to my compositions. I’ve also been experimenting with various effects pedals to create subtle differences in the nature of my guitar tone.

The album’s theme will be related to existing in the present moment in time, not rushing forward into the future or dwelling too long in the past, but creating something right now. The album utilize modern harmonies and some complicated rhythmic grooves, but I strive to make these things feel easy and familiar, not some sort of difficult math problem that has to be thought about at length before it’s enjoyed.

I want this album to reflect this strange moment that we are living in. It really feels like the future is now, and we are on the cusp of big changes. Things could really go in any direction and if we manage to get it right the rewards could be great. But there are so many potential pitfalls and hazards with wide-ranging ramifications.

When are you hoping it will be out?

I hope to record by the end of the year and get it out early next year. I do not as of yet have a name, though the working title of the project at the moment is “Field Theory.” The quick project description:

Drawing on the relationships between points in space and their quantum persistence, “Field  Theory” presents an electrified area of sound, or a “sonic-sphere.” The brainchild of composer and guitarist Matt Panayides in collaboration with the virtuoso EWI and saxophonist Matt Vashlishan, in this CD the band explores the sonic texture of space in time mapping it onto the present moment.

Best way to get jazz out to more people today?

I think a model should be developed where people pay a monthly charge to a content curator who has a vested interest in the creation of good music. A Netflix-type model for the creation of new music. Let’s face it, making CDs is expensive, and few people buy them.

In the end, this music is best experienced in a live setting, so spreading the word about local concerts and events through the social media channels is a valid strategy. Creating a buzz and a scene around what different musicians are doing can create a desire in people to witness music in action.

Encouraging people to connect in a real way and to get out of the house to experience something real is a message that we all need to be reminded of these days! Music creates a setting for these experiences. Music can connect us in ways that we need to remember.

Is it difficult making one’s living by gigging, due to freebies, accessibility on YouTube, and physical CDs going away?

It is difficult to make one’s living by gigging. I certainly know some musicians who are doing it.

There have been periods of my life where I was able to support myself only by playing gigs, but for me, teaching has also been a good source of income. Also, I’d say the destruction of the ability to make any money whatsoever from recordings is really hurting the music. Streaming services were introduced as a solution, but music creators see next to nothing from the streaming of their music.

What was it like to play with the Hyeseon Hong Orchestra?

It is always fun to play with a big band. There is so much sound around you. And to play Hyeseon’s music is a real pleasure because she writes very interesting parts for the guitar, hearing it as part of the whole.

Favorite clubs in NY?

It would have to be 55 Bar, Cornelia Street Café, Smalls and the Village Vanguard.

Goals for 2018?

Lots of musical goals for 2018. I’m working on playing guitar with more clarity and intention. I’m really into practicing these days, and there is just so much to uncover and to get at. I feel as though I’m just scratching the surface.

For so long I considered myself more of composer, and perhaps a music creator and thinker. Now I’m really trying to hone my skills as a guitarist. I want to continue to strive towards this goal for as long as I can. I’m also committed to writing new music with frequency, to continue to get to the essence of my compositions presenting the ideas free of clutter so the underlying message shines through.

Hoping to get my group on the road to do some playing up and down the East Coast this spring and to get out to the Midwest to play in the fall.

Looking at making some appearances in Asia during the summer. My music school is continuing to grow, and I look forward to advancing our positive impact on the local community. 

Other comments?

Such strange times we live in. With the advent of AI we may ask ourselves, what makes us human? The ability to synthesize (sense, understand) our human experience and translate it into music is, by definition (how can something that isn’t human express what it is to be human), something that can never be replicated by AI.

Also, I want to encourage people to support local musicians and to get out and listen to music live. Find ways to look beyond the screens that are ubiquitous and connect to each other in person. Seek out art in all the various ways that it’s appearing around us. Support artists and content creators and create something yourself. Look beyond the opinions that people are telling us we should have and find an individual way to live what resonates with you. Walk away from fear towards love: one never knows how long we have here. There is beauty all around us if we only give ourselves a moment to perceive it.

The new group is playing at ShapeShifter Lab in Brooklyn, NY on March 2 at 8:15 p.m. and at Spectrum on April 13 at 7 p.m.

For more information, visit

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Matt Panayides.
© Debbie Burke 2018

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