Jazz-classical flute player nurtures affinity for bluegrass

Matt Eakle, virtuoso flute player. Courtesy photo.

“What’s a jazz and classical flute player like you doing in a bluegrass sextet like this?”

Because I’ve known Matt Eakle for years, I don’t need to ask: He and mandolin doyen David Grisman blend their distinct virtuoso sounds to make extraordinary music.

Matt’s been part of David’s bands for 26 years.

And he’ll be one-sixth of the Grisman sextet at Sonoma State University’s Green Music Center, Weill Hall and lawn, at 3 p.m. Sunday, July 12 as part of the Dawg Day Afternoon Bluegrass Festival.

Also on that bill are the Del McCoury Band and dobro master Jerry Douglas presenting the Earls of Leicester.

Asked about his favorite from the upcoming playlist, Matt cites “Watson’s Blues,” which is dedicated to blind guitarist Doc Watson, the first performer to invite David onto a stage at age 17.

The tune gives Matt, who delights in stretching musically, “an opportunity to recreate the classic ‘twin fiddles’ bluegrass sound, something flute players don’t get to do very often.”

Another stretch came recently when he performed in Coblenz, Germany, at a 13th century church — a Bach sonata duet with a pipe organist.

Often, Matt also gets to meander into unmapped melodic territory with David, whose bluegrass sextet explores folk, rock, string jazz, Latin music, klezmer-influenced tunes, soul and funk.

Their collaboration dates to 1985, when David “was auditioning bassists for a European tour and I happened to be at a bassist’s house. I’m a good sight-reader because of my classical training so I was able to read all the songs he’d brought on my first try. We both were astonished at the cool sounds mandolin and flute made when they blended together. Four years later, he called me for a jam session and I ended up in his band.”

The 58-year-old’s actually been playing flute since he was 12 — in junior high.

“They only had a piccolo at first, so that’s what I started on. But when they got a flute a month later, I switched. It was so easy compared to the piccolo that I fell in love right away.”

Later musical training included studying with the son of the San Francisco Symphony’s principal flautist and learning “improvisation by the seat of my pants.”

Not to mention playing alongside virtuoso musicians.

And he’s performed with Jerry Garcia, Stephane Grappelli, Chris Isaak, Bonnie Raitt and Linda Ronstadt.

He’s even done a couple of gigs — a benefit for Bread and Roses in Novato and another for homeless men being sheltered in San Anselmo — with my jazz pianist wife, Nancy Fox.

Matt Eakle (second from right) has played in bands led by Dave Grisman (third from left) since 1989. Courtesy photo.

Matt, despite being an environmentalist, lets no grass — blue or otherwise — grow under his feet.

He performs with his own quartet, the Matt Eakle Band; plays with the Murasaki Ensemble, a quintet led by Shirley Muramoto, who excels on koto, a classical horizontal harp-like string instrument frequently used for court music in Japan; puts in tons of freelance appearances; and teaches jazz and classical flute.

The flute player — he’s turned off by the word “flautist” — has sparse spare time.

He runs nearly every day, often barefoot.

Sometimes he runs to the top of Bald Hill, just west of his adopted town of San Anselmo, where he’s lived since 1998 with his wife, Lucia.

He supplements that with pushups and pull-ups (scoliosis forced him to give up standing on his head).

He’s slowed down on yanking out non-native plants from San Anselmo’s Faude Park, however, though he’d done it for years. In fact, as chair of the town’s Quality of Life Commission, I’d handed him a Green Award for his weeding.

Matt’s recorded three albums of his own, from which his favorite jazz piece is “Speak Low.” He admits attributing the Kurt Weill composition “to the wrong person on my CD, ‘Flute Jazz,’ but they don’t care because I send the royalties to the right place.”

What makes him unique as a flute player?

“My emphasis on sound and tone coloration and the fact that I surrender completely to the groove.”

I’ve more than once watched him perform at Iron Springs Pub in Fairfax, where he sways his body like a dancing Spiderman.

That, he explains, is “just my natural reaction, what happens to me, and I try not to interfere with it.”

Future Green Music Center events, in addition to the July 12 Dawg Day Afternoon Bluegrass Festival, include appearances by Jay Leno July 31, Natalie Cole Aug. 1, Steve Martin Aug. 20, Dwight Yoakam Aug. 21, Chris Botti Sept.11, Wynton Marsalis Sept. 17 and Kristin Chenoweth Sept. 25. Tickets: $20 to $175. Information: 866-955-6040 or gmc.sonoma.edu.

Contact Woody Weingarten at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.ne