Chasing the Thread: An Interview with Clay Ross of Matuto

by | Nov 11, 2013 | MUSIC

According to a genealogy model developed by Yale statistics professor Joseph Chang, if you look far enough into the past, everyone has a common ancestor. He said it a little differently: “All individuals who have any descendants among the present-day individuals are actually ancestors of all present-day individuals,” but you get the idea. Everyone on planet Earth is related.

According to a genealogy model developed by Yale statistics professor Joseph Chang, if you look far enough into the past, everyone has a common ancestor. He said it a little differently: “All individuals who have any descendants among the present-day individuals are actually ancestors of all present-day individuals,” but you get the idea. Everyone on planet Earth is related.

Now, I bring this up not to make things awkward between you and your spouse, but to make a point about how interconnected the world is. We’re not so different, and neither are the musical genres we tend to think of as distinct from one another.

Such is Clay Ross’ outlook on music. Ross is the virtuosic flat-picking frontman of Matuto, an innovative New York City-based group that’s poised to play at Balliceaux on Thursday, November 14. Matuto deftly manipulates the strands that connect styles like jazz, roots, bluegrass, and Brazilian folk music, weaving together a sound as nuanced and unique as any you’ll hear.

Back in June, I had the opportunity to see Matuto perform in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, just 48 hours after they played to a jam-packed, line-out-the-door Lincoln Center audience. That Lincoln Center show served a dual purpose — celebrating the release of their latest album, The Devil and the Diamond, and premiering a brand-new piece, called “Africa Suite,” which was composed on the heels of the African tour the group undertook as part of the U.S. State Department’s “American Music Abroad” program.

I was blown away by the band’s wide-ranging palette and stunning technical skill, and a few days after their Harrisburg show, I spoke with Ross over the phone about “Africa Suite,” his time touring with Cyro Baptista, the shared lineage of musical styles and more.

Photo by Davy Jones

How did the Lincoln Center show go? When we talked in Harrisburg, you mentioned that there was a line around the block.

We had the idea to create this suite before we even left for the tour. We knew it would be really inspiring, and we decided it would be easy to create music based on the trip. Since there were five countries and five musicians on the tour, we decided to [have] each musician contribute a different piece based on a different country. So we drew country names from a hat, and each person in the band was sort of commissioned to compose a piece for the country they selected.

So when we came back from the tour, everyone went to their respective corners and composed. We had the show booked at Lincoln Center, actually, before we even left to go on the tour, and we knew that this was already set in motion. It was a lot of risk. It was a sort of calculated risk, because I know the talent of the group, and I knew everyone would rise to the occasion, but at the same time, we had never done anything like that before. We’d never even really collaboratively composed music before. Most of the time it’s either just myself or [accordion player] Rob [Curto] writing music for the band and we bring it in, but I knew that everyone did write and I knew they were completely capable of it.

And then you never really know what the response is going to be to something like that, but it was really overwhelming, just really exciting to see so many people come out. Like I said, there was a line stretched around the building, and they actually couldn’t even fit everybody in and I had to turn people away. That was exciting.

I saw the letter from Michael Bloomberg on your website. How did it feel being compared to Dave Brubeck?

Oh man, it’s amazing. It’s an honor. I think most musicians want to arrive into the company of people that they respect, and that definitely felt like some level of validation and appreciation for the work that we’ve done. It’s really surreal to think that Duke Ellington used to do those programs, and Dizzy Gillespie and Dave Brubeck and Stan Getz and a lot of American artists that we’ve admired.

Your music has that cultural and educational quality to it, and it seems like that opens all sorts of doors for you. You’ve played breweries, arts festivals, bluegrass festivals… what’s your favorite type of gig to play?

We really love all of them, and we like them all for different reasons. In a sense, they’re all the same, because it really comes down to communication. You’re communicating by giving people something to dance to, or you’re communicating by telling a story of the tour you did in Africa, or your passion for Brazilian music, or sharing something that people haven’t experienced before. From that perspective, we just go in and give 100% at everything we do.

I think we’re really lucky that we’re able to sit in so many different frames, and that we can be promoted in the context of a bluegrass festival, a jazz festival, a roots music festival or a world music festival, and we have something to offer in all of those contexts. When we started the band, we were conscious of that possibility, and that was one of the goals. We really wanted to be able to bring a lot of cultures together in our music and bring a lot of musical ideas together that are from different cultures, but at the same time we want to be able to share that music in as broad a platform as possible.

I read that you spent some time touring with Cyro Baptista. Are there any experiences that stuck with you?

Playing with Cyro was incredible. It was an excellent place for me to learn about what it means to be a touring artist, and about what it means to mix different styles of music together. Also how to communicate on bigger stages. Before I worked with Cyro, I was mostly a local musician, playing local gigs. I had moved to New York City, and I had had success — I was actually making a living playing music — but I wasn’t on this international touring artist level that I really aspired to be on. When I worked with Cyro, that was my first quote-unquote break into a new world of possibility, and I learned a lot.

How did that get started?

I had come to New York, and I was pursuing jazz music. I met some people who played Brazilian music, and I was really attracted to that, and I started to pursue that more. Then I heard through the grapevine that Cyro Baptista was looking for a guitar player in his band, so I really pursued him. I went to every show that he did, I showed up at every workshop he gave, anything he did in the city, I would just show up [laughs]. I let him know that I really wanted the job. It took time, but after he got to know me and saw my enthusiasm to be part of the band, he gave me a shot, and I guess I rose to the occasion.

When reading about your music, it often gets descriptors like “Appalachia-gone-Afro-Brazilian” or “Brazilian bluegrass.” When you’re composing and performing, does it feel to you like you’re putting two things together or do those things have more in common than people think?

I really don’t think that at all, because I think they’re somewhat common experiences. There’s such a common story. Since I started, it was all motivated, purely on a musical level, by discovering, in this completely organic way, that if I put this rhythm that I learned in Brazil with this song from Kentucky, it sounds really cool, and I like that.

And then later you come to realize through investigating and studying the history a little bit more, if you look at the perspective of Colonialism, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and you take a step back 400 years and look at the collisions of cultures that are at the root of America and at the root of American society — and that means all of the Americas, not just North America — from that perspective, you have a common story shared between Brazil, the American South… It’s a common story of cultures colliding in this new land of opportunity and things mixing freely. That gave us rock and roll. That gave us jazz. That gave us all these styles of music in the Americas that we love and have stood the test of time.

It’s the same in Brazil. They have a similar set of influences that gave birth to these very distinctive styles, but at the root of those styles are the same ingredients that are in American music. It’s kind of cool because it’s liberating in a way if you look at it from that perspective. We’re chasing the thread of the one quality about all of this music that made it exciting in the first place. Why would this style survive all of this travel and all this hardship and all this human suffering? Why would it survive? There’s something really good about it, and that exists in all these cultures.

You and Rob Curto go on these dozens-of-notes-long runs that are so tight. Was that chemistry there right away, or was it something that came from playing together for a while?

Well, Rob and I both have, individually, pretty extensive backgrounds in jazz and all kinds of music. Classical music or whatever it is — we’ve been playing on our own for decades. And then we were really just into a lot of the same things. When we met, it was like “Yeah I’m into that, I’m into that, I’m into that, I’m into that, and yeah, I also like Pink Floyd” [laughs]. It was just really easy. He grew up in New York, I grew up in South Carolina, but we both essentially grew up in middle class, American suburbs, digging bands like the Grateful Dead and classic rock and stuff like that. And then we found our way through the back door into Brazilian music and both identified really strongly with that. So it was great to find somebody you could collaborate with. That’s all you could ask for.

Are there any trips to Brazil in the works?

We’re conscious of the fact that it would be really nice to build an audience for ourselves in Brazil, because of the connection with our music. We’ve been there several times now and have had a lot of success there and a lot of fun sharing our music there. We don’t have anything on the books right now, but it’s definitely an intention.


Matuto plays at Balliceaux on Thursday, November 14 at 9:30 p.m. Cover is $7. For more information, go to

By Davy Jones
Live photos by Lauren Click (unless otherwise noted)

Marilyn Drew Necci

Marilyn Drew Necci

Former GayRVA editor-in-chief, RVA Magazine editor for print and web. Anxiety expert, proud trans woman, happily married.

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