November Features

Mat Domber stands by a display honoring his and Rick Fay's first recording, Live at Lone Pine. Since recording Fay, Domber has recorded an astonishing variety of artists and styles. The label is known for its superb presentation and excellent distribution, and Domber has become a greatly respected producer of jazz recordings, events and cruises. Musicians credit him with the savvy to recognize new talent and say he has also brought new vigor to existing careers.

Mat Domber:
Versatile Jazz Catalyst

His Arbors Records, Parties, Cruises and Concerts Enrich Opportunities for Musicians and Fans

Text and Photos by Bob Byler

Mat Domber told 500 fans at his 2002 March of Jazz party, "I dreamed about hearing great jazz 24 hours a day." A lot of it is captured on almost 300 Arbors CDs and cassettes issued since 1990 or on video of his innovative parties, cruises and concerts.

Domber has recorded over 400 musicians and staged 10 jazz parties, five jazz cruises and two tributes to bassist Bob Haggart. He also directed tours by the venerable Statesmen of Jazz.  His next venture will be an international Arbors invitational jazz piano party in January 2009.

Domber became a producer of recordings and jazz events almost by accident. He wanted a record by his favorite, reedman Rick Fay but learned that he had never been recorded in a four-decade career. So, Domber recorded him in late 1989 with a quintet named Rick Fay's Hot Five. It boosted Rick's career and launched Arbors Records, now located in Clearwater, Fla.

His March of Jazz Parties evolved from a bash Domber threw to celebrate Bob Haggart's 80th birthday in 1994. It was a big success, and he did another in 1995 to honor saxophonist Flip Phillips. The parties honored many jazz legends and grew to feature up to 80 players until ending in 2004.

Souvenir programs for these parties are treasures of jazz literature. They documented musicians' lives in hundreds of photos, articles and biographies and were up to 120 pages by 2004. These are a valuable resource for jazz writers and scholars.

Domber has a gift for putting musicians together in new combinations for recordings and parties. The 2002 party, for example, had 56 stars in 33 groups.  Among the new groups created for Arbors Records are Johnny Varros's Swing 7, John Sheridan's Dream Band, Rossano Sportiello and Nicki Parrott, the Joe Ascione Quartet and the Warren Vache-John Allred Quintet.

Besides Fay, musicians Domber recorded for their first time include Joe Ascione, Rebecca Kilgore and the Statesmen of Jazz. Randy Reinhart, John Allred and Jon-Erik Kellso made their first CDs as leaders for Arbors. Some whose careers were revived or enhanced by his efforts were Haggart, Phillips, Ruby Braff, Ralph Sutton, Jerry Jerome and Kenny Davern.

Trombonist/cornetist Dan Barrett is Arbors' most-recorded artist, on about 50 CDs. As Arbors first music director, Barrett recommended musicians for recordings and events and made several arrangements for recordings. Bucky Pizzarelli is on about 40, and those on 20 or more are Haggart, Varro, Fay, Braff, Howard Alden, Dick Hyman, Ed Metz Jr. and Scott Robinson.

Looking Back

"I'm a lawyer by trade, specializing in real estate law, and I still have an office in New York City, although I seldom have time for law practice now," said Domber.

"After developing housing for senior citizens in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, I organized a real estate management company in Pittsburgh. That led to forming Seaboard Arbors Management Services in Clearwater and my move to this area."

The firm's logo was adapted for Arbors Records where, its catalog proclaims, "classic jazz lives on."

Jazz activity takes up about 80 percent of his time, Domber estimated. "I've learned that it's hard to make a profit in jazz, but we don't compromise our quality standards. I'm not a musician, but I appreciate any music that has good melody, swing and improvisation," he said.

When Domber was a young teenager, his father took him to Nick's in Greenwich Village to hear the likes of Pee Wee Russell and Muggsy Spanier.  Jimmy Ryan's Sunday afternoon jam sessions and Eddie Condon bands also became favorites.  Today Domber attends music festivals in this country and abroad, often presenting musicians from the Statesmen of Jazz roster.

He used to travel to the West Coast on business and became a friend of Rick Fay's when he was at the Gaslight Club in Los Angeles in the 1960s. His first recording by Fay's Hot Five also featured trumpeter Davy Jones. Then Domber heard the Salty Dogs with guest cornetist Ernie Carson at a Pensacola fest and paired him with Fay in the second recording. The third featured Dan Barrett, who first sat in with Fay when he was only 16.

"As time went on, first through Rick and Dan, I met many musicians and one led me to another. The March of Jazz parties were a source of many new contacts," said Domber. "As we grew we tried to preserve the music of great players. I feel that jazz is a big tent, able to encompass many styles, including well-played Dixieland. Arbors tries to promote that point of view and has even edged its way into some more contemporary styles."

Some Choice Recordings

It isn't possible to review more than a fraction of the Arbors output, so  Domber was asked to pick a "top ten" that are special to him. The 52-page Arbors catalog lists over 100 "best record" picks by reviewers in jazz publications, by radio hosts and in jazz society newsletters internationally.

"It is very hard to select `special' recordings because, like a proud parent, I like just about everything we have done over the years. But here are some by artists that I take particular pride in having recorded," he said.

"1. Ruby Braff, the finest cornetist of his time, expressed his love of the Great American Songbook in his inimitable style and sound. It's hard to choose from among the 18 Arbors sessions he led. Those that stand out in my mind are his first quartet session, Live at the Regattabar; his session with Dick Hyman, Play Nice Tunes; the two Controlled Nonchalance CDs and the just-released historic final performance with Scott Hamilton, For the Last Time.

"2. That leads me to Dick Hyman who has led nine sessions to date. One of his first ones with Bob Haggart and Howard Alden, Cheek to Cheek, is one I listen to repeatedly.

"3. No list is complete without Rick Fay sessions, most memorable being ours and his first one, Live at Long Pine. His session with Dan Barrett, Ernie Carson and Johnny Mince, Memories of You, had Mince's poignant performance of the title tune. At his final session, With a Song in My Heart, he was dying of cancer and lay on a couch in the studio but got his wish to record with strings. My thoughts of Rick are also associated with his tour-de-force combination of music and poetry, Sax-O-Poem.

Rick Fay, shown here at Florida's 1995  Suncoast Festival, was the inspiration for beginning Arbors Records in 1990. A reedman and poet, Fay set the bar high for quality, and his recordings continue to be among Mat Domber's personal favorites out of nearly 300 Arbors recordings.

"4. One of my closest relationships was with Kenny Davern, whose clarinet style and tone made him unique. His last quartet was special, with James Chirillo, Greg Cohen and Tony DeNicola, and is well-represented by At the Mill Hill Playhouse and Live at the Outpost. He and Bob Wilber are captured at the height of their creativity on a CD from a 1975 concert by the New Jersey Jazz Society and a DVD from 1994-96 March of Jazz parties.

"5. High on my list of favorites are Rebecca Kilgore and Dave Frishberg on several CDs. Their first together, Not a Care in the World, and their latest, Why Fight the Feeling, the music of Frank Loesser, resonate with me.

"6. The Harry Allen-Joe Cohn Quartet is something special. When paired with Rebecca Kilgore and Eddie Erickson on the music from Guys and Dolls they become extra special.

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November 2008 issue | © 2008 The Mississippi Rag

P.O. Box 19068, Minneapolis, MN 55419.