I saw him only once, but it was memorable: a duo concert with Charles Ellison (fluegelhorn) at Montreal's Concordia University, back in my first year of music school. I hadn't yet had the opportunity to hear many genuine masters live, so Matthews was a revelation. The communication between him and Ellison was uncanny, especially on the ballads -- they sounded like old friends.
We learned Matthews had terminal pancreatic cancer last month. There was a living tribute on June 23 at Sweet Rhythm, featuring the likes of Cedar Walton, Randy Weston, George Coleman, Sonny Fortune, Jimmy Heath, Louis Hayes, Gary Bartz, and more. I could not make it, much to my regret.
The late John Hicks and Ronnie Mathews shared something similar in touch and piano attitude. (They could easily have subbed for each other on most of their gigs.) At its best, it felt like “the real thing.” I firmly believe that their style - and indeed, most straight-ahead jazz since the death of John Coltrane - is hard to capture on record. The music that Hicks and Mathews represent is too dependent on a communal feeling for it to be documented. It has less to do with Art than Culture. You need to be there, close to the bandstand, preferably in a small club, hopefully surrounded by other patrons who really love and understand the language.
So, the moral is, go see the older straight-ahead masters now. When they are gone, it is done.
Via Doug, here is a great 1981 clip of Matthews with Johnny Griffin, Ray Drummond, and Kenny Washington, playing Griffin's "A Monk's Dream" live at the Vanguard: