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Bass Man Knows His Wine

Matt Penman explores the worlds of wine and jazz
Photo by: Emma Islek
Bass player Matt Penman draws parallels between winemaking, which he dabbles in, and performing live jazz.

Posted: Feb 4, 2013 11:11am ET

Matt Penman pulled the cork on a Huët Vouvray Le Haut-Lieu 2011, poured me a sip and apologizes for the glassware. "I'm sorry for the plastic cups, but they won't let us have real wineglasses here."

We are in the green room in the new SFJAZZ Center, which bills itself as the first concert hall of its type in the United States: a freestanding performance venue with flexible seating and staging for artists of every stature, built specifically for jazz music and audiences alike. It opened recently in San Francisco on the corner of Franklin and Fell streets with a series of all-star concerts.

"They sell wine in the lobby and people can take it into the hall, so they don't want any glassware," he sighed. "I'm working on it." Penman, the bass player for the SFJAZZ Collective, the eight-piece resident ensemble, also seems to be the designated wine guy, not only for that group but also his other regular gig as the bass player in James Farm, a quartet led by the alto saxophonist Joshua Redman.

A New Zealander by birth, Penman, 38, grew up in a wine-drinking family. "My dad owned a wine shop in Auckland and was a weekend warrior. He made wine, strictly as an amateur. His wines were my introduction." He makes his own wine at his home in Brooklyn, N.Y., using Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes shipped from California. "I really prefer Pinot Noir," he admitted ruefully, "but the Cab and Merlot [grapes] ship better."

He writes about wine often in his blog, "Pith for the Few," which appears on his eponymous website. A recent entry described bringing a bottle of Vins de Vienne Côte-Rôtie 2004 to a New York restaurant only to find that the winemaker, François Villard, was at an adjacent table.

Like most musicians, the bass player travels a good deal, and Penman admitted that he spends off hours seeking out wines in major cities and, when possible, nearby wine regions. "My wine bone gets tickled when I can discover something new," he smiled, "something we might not be able to get at home. When it comes to wine I'm open to anything."

As we talked, musicians trickled by from the dining area, where the likes of pianist McCoy Tyner, singer Mary Stallings and violinist Regina Carter shared a pre-performance buffet. Redman, who played a sensational trio of "Mack the Knife" with Penman and drummer Eric Harland later that night, held out his plastic tumbler for a pour of the dry, vividly flavorful Vouvray.

So, why a French wine in the midst of California wine country? "I am an unabashed Francophile," Penman insisted. "I am particularly partial to the Loire and Southern Rhône, but I also love Beaujolais." He expounded for several minutes on the Beaujolais wines of Marcel Lapierre.

Unlike many performers who enjoy a good wine mostly when someone chooses it for them, Penman actually knows whereof he speaks. He explained why he prefers the balance and fragrance of Sauvignon Blancs from Sancerre and the different levels of sweetness and tartness in Chenin Blancs from Vouvray, Savennières and Côteaux de Layon.

"When I have a really great wine that sings of its place, it reminds me of jazz," he said. "It is a very personal, unmistakable experience. And it's a special inspiration if you've actually visited the vines and seen the roots."

He is also partial to natural wines, although he carefully noted that he tries to avoid the winemaking mistakes that can plague some bottles in the category. "Maybe it's because I play jazz, but I like that sense of taking a leap of faith, when you don't exactly know what the next moment might bring," he said. "When it works, [the wine] can have so much verve and vivacity, and every bottle is a little bit different."

I allowed as how that's where we part company, but I knew what he was saying. There's a certain level of risk playing a form of music that relies so much on improvisation, and requires its own unique style of articulation. He found a parallel in natural wines. For me, wines that go off in fermentation, aging or in the bottle, are like musicians playing out of tune. He thought about that for a moment, agreed that it's bothersome, but for him the reward of the ones that click compensate for off bottles.

As a music major in college, I started off on bass, and earned pocket change playing jazz before I turned my focus to the written word. I gotta tell you, we never had digs like the SFJAZZ Center. Its main hall seats 350 to 700, based on how it's configured, and it is indeed a great place for jazz, with clean acoustics and a high comfort level. The lineup for the inaugural season includes guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Dave Holland, singer Dianne Reeves and the Afro-Cuban All-Stars, and in March a whole week of the SFJAZZ Collective. I am planning to be in the audience for some of those performances, and maybe share another glass of good wine with the bass player.

Richard Gangel
San Francisco, CA USA —  February 4, 2013 1:29pm ET
I can understand why they don't allow real glass wineglasses in the hall for a couple of reasons. It's a fantastic concession to the patrons to allow them to bring wine and other drinks into the hall in the first place, but the acoustics are so extraordinarily good that dropping a glass during the performance, which is probable, would be a distraction to the musicians and the audience. It was certainly distracting when patrons got up during the performance and the sound of their walking spread through the hall. Secondly, it's bad enough to clean up spilled drinks from the floor, but the expense of replacing broken glasses versus the cost of plastic glasses is a big consideration on the part of SF Jazz.

We in San Francisco are very fortunate to have someone with the fortitude of Randall Kline to bring about such a project to our city, and the architectural chops of Mark Cavagnero to design it so superbly. I took a tour of the building just two months ago and was amazed at how quickly they managed to complete the job on time with just a few small tweaks that need to be completed that don't affect the hall itself.

A further note on the acoustics: There are not many concert halls, if any, in which they can turn off the sound system and the patrons in the balcony can hear every note being played on the stage.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  February 4, 2013 1:49pm ET
Thanks for your comment, Richard. I agree, glass would not be appropriate. But there are some excellent plastic products that have the shape and size to show off wine better that straight plastic tumblers.

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