Featured Interview – Matthew Skollar1

Cover photo © Bob Kieser

Over the years, blues music has proven to fit hand-in-glove with a lot of different things.

Blues and heartache? For sure.

Blues and barbecue? Without a doubt.

Blues and dancing? Oh, yeah

But blues and grapes? Well …

But if Chicago producer, songwriter, bandleader and harpist extraordinaire Matthew Skoller has anything to say about it, a whole new one-two punch of blues and vino are about to occupy a spot on that list.

“I’ve been doing a lot of events at City Winery in New York –events that I started developing in Chicago a few years ago, which are called Cognac and Blues events,” said Skoller, just a couple of hours after arriving for a function on New York City’s Lower East Side, and just days before departing to Europe for a run of shows. “Basically, what we do, in Chicago it was me and Lurrie Bell and Johnny Iguana, and we would do an acoustic thing where we would sit down in front of a group of people who were interested in tasting Cognac and listening to the blues. We’d pour a flight of maybe two Cognacs and I would talk about them and then we’d break into song and let people experience them. We were basically pairing Cognac with blues music. Depending upon what kind of Cognac it was, that would determine what the song choice was. So we started doing it at City Winery in New York and have had a few events and that’s been very exciting to watch that develop and see how the music and the Cognac work so beautifully together.”

While he’s been busy making his mark on the blues scene for the past three decades or so, Matthew Skoller has also managed to find adequate time to enjoy some of the finer things in life and from the looks of things, that love has now found a way to fill space on his daily planner as a new business endeavor.

“It’s a venture that my brother (producer, promoter, guitar player – Larry), my sister-in-law and myself are involved in. My brother lives in Cognac, France and I’ve been in and out of the wine business – been a big vinophile for years. In fact, I sold wine to support the music for many years,” Skoller said. “So I know quite a bit about wine. And we organized about six families that make artisanal grape-to-bottle Cognac. In other words, it’s all estate-grown, family-made and in some cases, completely organic, Cognac. We put together a portfolio of those Cognacs and brought them to Chicago, and then New York City. Our Cognacs are carried by Tenzing Wine & Spirits in Chicago and Michael Skurnik Wine in New York and the Tri-States area.”

Skoller’s delve into the deep end of the Cognac pool is just the tip of the iceberg in what has been an extremely busy and highly fulfilling year.

“It’s been a great year – very exciting,” he said. “The highlights that come to mind immediately is the momentum and response to Chicago Blues: A Living History – The (R)Evolution Continues. It’s been wonderful. It won Best Traditional Blues Album of the Year in Memphis (at the Blues Music Awards) and is also nominated for Best Traditional Album in the 2012 Blues Blast Music Awards.”

Skoller also managed to squeeze in some time for his old friend Lurrie Bell, helping the late Carey Bell’s son create one of the most emotional, heartfelt and inspiring works of his career to date.

“Yeah, another highlight this year was the release of Lurrie’s The Devil Ain’t Got No Music, produced by yours truly,” Skoller said. “It’s extremely gratifying. We worked on that project for three years. I understood from the beginning that it was something that Lurrie really had his heart set on doing, but at the same time, it was something that was not what he does every night in the clubs or on the festival stage. There was a lot of new material mixed in with stuff he’d been doing since he was a child, so we wanted to allow him to live with that material long enough to be really comfortable with it – which he is.”

Although the style might not immediately be what Bell’s fans are used to hearing from the guitar-playing firebrand, according to Skoller, that’s not stopped them from digging on it one little bit.

“We were very proud of it from Jump Street, but were very unsure about how it would be received, since it was so different from anything that Lurrie had ever done,” he said. “It was a real departure from the electric Chicago blues, but we wanted it to do good things for him. And I just got off the phone with his manager and they’ve already sold 1,000 CDs, just in France. It’s been getting rave reviews all across the board. We were asked by Downbeat to do an interview about that record, because they were so taken with it. So he’s been getting a lot of accolades and play from it.”

But there’s more stuff that has also begged for Skoller’s attention.

“I was also involved in a project called Heritage Blues Orchestra – And Still I Rise, I played on a song from that, but it was produced by my brother, Larry,” he said. “It’s with some of my closest collaborators – Bill Sims Jr., and his daughter Chaney Sims and Junior Mack and an amazing horn composer and horn blower out of France named Bruno Wilhelm. And of course, Kenny (Beady Eyes) Smith was in that project, along with some amazing horn players from New York City. So that was most definitely a great project to be involved with on the periphery to watch and to blow some harp on. The result is spectacular. It’s one of my favorite blues records in the last 15 years.”

Bill Sims was recently inducted into the New York Blues Hall of Fame.

More than just playing the blues, Skoller – well-read and articulate – also seems to be genuinely interested in the expansive history of the art form. His studious approach to the blues helped lead to a speaking engagement at an event put together by Living Blues Magazine and Dominican University in Chicago this past spring.

“I was asked to speak at a symposium at Dominican University called Blues and the Spirit III: Race, Gender and the Blues. I went in and talked about my experiences in the subject, which I’ve been dealing with for over 32 years now. It was fascinating and some of the response to the symposium has been very interesting and we’re looking forward to next year,” he said. “I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching and thinking and writing about my relationship to a music that can be referred to as a heritage music – a music that comes from a very specific culture that is not my culture.”

Being a ‘non-heritage’ artist playing the blues comes with its own set of responsibilities and obligations, including knowing more than just a passing thing about how the music was first created.

And why it was created.

“It’s something that I’ve thought about and have written about very consciously for most of my career. It’s not anything new to me and I have a lot of opinions and a lot of information about the subject,” he said. “The first responsibly that the non-heritage, or in this case, non-African American artist, has to the music and to the original progenitors of the music, is to know the history and make it your business to study how the blues were born and what the blues were born out of.”

Skoller has certainly embraced blues music for much of his adult life and understands that, as an art form, it merits careful understanding of why it exists, even though a lot of the reasons why consist of a host of uncomfortable subject matters.

“If you’re going to be involved in music that was born out of one of the most brutal and violent and tragic institutions in the history of human-kind – slavery in America – to think that this is going to be a feel-good subject all the time is at best naïve and at worst ignorant,” he said. “But that’s a big responsibly that non-heritage and heritage – African American musicians – need to know. They need to know what this music was born out of.”

Respect is by all means a two-way street and while it’s evident Skoller has nothing but respect for the heritage artists that he has been fortunate enough to work since over the years, it’s also obvious that he has earned their respect and trust, too.

“My experience in being the apprentice of African American artists who were extremely generous to me over the years, has been that I can’t remember any bluesman over the years that I’ve been doing this that was not supportive and not welcoming and not helpful in my blues journey,” he said. “I’ve played with a lot of great bluesmen over the years and I think that as non-African American players we have to do our homework and be cognizant of the fact that this is a heritage music. This is African American music and we can speak that language fluently and we can be a part of the community that makes a living with that music, but we have to be careful to not allow the industry to shut out the people that gave us this music. That’s one of the most important points that has to be made.”

The Chicago Blues: A Living History series was designed to help turn the spotlight back on the golden age of Windy City blues, and while it no doubt accomplished that mission, it also provided Matthew Skoller with another chance to work with his brother.

“It was the brainchild of my brother Larry, who played in my band for many, many years. A lot of people know him as a producer and a booker, but he is a fabulous blues guitar player, one of my favorites,” he said. “I played the Cognac Blues Festival two years in a row – around 2000 and 2001 – and he met his future wife there. She worked for the festival. And so I’ll put it this way – I lost a guitar player, but gained a sister-in-law and a beautiful niece. He moved there and has lived there for about 10 years now.”

“He (Larry) had this idea to create a package that celebrated the history of Chicago blues from about 1940 through the 50s and up to the present day. And, who better to do that than the people that we’ve been collaborating with over the last 28 years?” said Skoller. “Billy Branch, Billy Boy Arnold, Carlos Johnson, Lurrie Bell and John Primer – we worked and recorded and lived on the road with those guys. Those are our colleagues and friends. It became a no-brainer, once Larry had this concept, but it was only going to be as strong as the artistry and the production values that you put into it.”

Considering the finished product, the artistry and production values were off the chart.

The end result was a two-CD set that immediately found an essential spot in the collections of blues lovers worldwide. Chicago Blues: A Living History won the Blues Blast Music Award for Best Traditional album, snagged a Grammy nomination and also a pair of Blues Music Award nominations in the process. It also spawned a second volume – Chicago Blues: A Living History – The (R)Evolution continues.

“Yeah, we put out the first volume and messed around and got a Grammy nomination. It was a little more than that (a pleasant surprise). You would have to have pulled my jaw up off the ground,” laughed Skoller.

That Grammy nomination, while helping to raise awareness of a superb piece of work, has also paid off in more important terms for the artists involved in the project.

“Because we did get a Grammy nomination for the first volume, it has generated really, really important revenue and work for the artists involved,” Skoller said. “It just immediately translated into work for all of us.”

Some of the more recent work for the Chicago Blues: A Living History Band (Kenny Smith, drums; Felton Crews, bass; Billy Flynn, guitar; Johnny Iguana, piano; Matthew Skoller, harp) included an appearance at the Lugano Blues Festival in Switzerland, as well as a festival in Burgundy, France, the Cognac Blues Festival and one of the most famous festivals in the world – the Montreux Jazz festival, where the group was on the same bill as the iconic Bob Dylan.

“You know, we probably wouldn’t have those gigs had we not got that Grammy nomination,” said Skoller.

Despite focusing a lot of his attention and energy on outside projects the past several months, Skoller, whose band was awarded an artist-in-residency position at the Disney Institute in Orlando, Florida in 1996, has still found some time for himself. Time he has used to woodshed and hone his own skills to a razor-sharp edge.

“On top of all the other things I’ve been doing, I’ve really been digging into my harmonica playing and my singing,” he said. “I feel stronger than I ever have in my career, as far as being a performer and harmonica player. Really, a lot of things have opened up musically for me in the last couple of years. And that’s something that’s really been gratifying.”

Skoller, who was already blowing some mean harp by the time he moved to Chicago in early 1987, didn’t let the pressure of arriving at one of the biggest blues hot spots in the world – one filled to the brim with world-class harmonica players – throw him off his game one bit.

“It should have been (intimidating), but I was so obsessed by what I was doing and I was so passionate about it, that I didn’t second-think it at all,” he said. “I felt like I belonged there and a lot of that had to do with the people that hired and supported me. When I came down, I immediately started working with J.W. Williams, who had splintered off from Billy Branch and Sons of the Blues. I became a Chi-Town Hustler. I played all over the South, West and North sides. Then I got hired by Deitra Farr and then Big Time Sarah hired me and then I did a stint with Jimmy Rogers. And just as I was settling in with him, Big Daddy Kinsey came along and asked me if I wanted to go out on the road and make a cord. And the Kinsey Report, at that time, was in full-swing.”

Playing virtually every night of the week, Skoller hung out with giants like Junior Wells, Johnny Littlejohn and Dave and Louis Meyers.

“When you’re around all those folks and when they’re digging what you’re doing and are all really supportive and encouraging – and if you’re a erformer and love the whole thing – it’s hard to second guess that,” he said. “Maybe I should have been more daunted than I was, but there’s a certain kind of bliss in ignorance.”

Seemingly from the first moment that his feet hit the ground in Chicago, Matthew Skoller has been working at a break-neck pace, involved in not only the production and day-to-day activities of his own band – including a regular gig at Buddy Guy’s Legends for the past 15 years – but also working on projects with Bernard Allison, Larry Garner and Harvey Mandel, to name but a few.

As if that wasn’t enough to fully occupy Skoller’s attention, he was also recently asked by the Chicago chapter of the Recording Academy to be an advisor on their board of governors.

That, folks, adds up to one heck of a full plate.

“It’s all one thing. We firmly believe that all these hats we’re wearing are all related to one another on some level,” he said. “Whether it’s producing records for some other talented artist, performing in clubs or exporting Cognac and doing Cognac tastings with blues music, it’s all one thing for us. It’s all part of the process.” 

Visit Matthew’s website at: www.matthewskoller.com

Interviewer Terry Mullins is a journalist and former record store owner whose personal taste in music is the sonic equivalent of Attention Deficit Disorder. Works by the Bee Gees, Captain Beefheart, Black Sabbath, Earth, Wind & Fire and Willie Nelson share equal space with Muddy Waters, The Staples Singers and R.L. Burnside in his compact disc collection. He’s also been known to spend time hanging out on the street corners of Clarksdale, Miss., eating copious amounts of barbecued delicacies while listening to the wonderful sounds of the blues.

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