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Jazz in the Valley has developed a certain je ne sais quoi over the years. Even though the phrase actually translates literally into “I don’t know what,” in French, Americans tend to think of it more as meaning something special and distinctive.

Musicians, as well as music fans, know the jazz festival to be something very meaningful and after a year’s layoff because of the pandemic. Jazz in the Valley is expected to be a genuine joy to the experience, this year more than ever, flugelhornist Dmitri Matheny said in a telephone interview from Centralia.

“I love Jazz in the Valley. I just love the whole concept of it. I play a lot of music and jazz festivals and a lot of times some great band is two stages away and you can’t hear them. It’s really brilliant how they put it together in that it allows us to be able to check to other groups out,” said Matheny, who was first introduced to jazz audiences in the 1990s as the protégé of Art Farmer.

“There are some organizations that haven’t shut off the lights. They’ve just sort of hunkered down and kept working. Jazz in the Valley is one of those organizations that reached out to the musicians and figured out a way to do something, maybe not on the scale of years past, but put something together to keep it going. (Jazz in the Valley president) Tony (Swartz) found a way and we are so grateful for that.”

Matheny leads the Dmitri Matheny Group, an all-star jazz band featuring some of the most accomplished musicians in the United States. The group includes Bill Anschell (piano), Jeff Johnson (bass), D’Vonne Lewis (drums) and vocalist Gail Pettis.

Matheny has released 11 critically-acclaimed albums as a leader and his discography lists over 120 albums where he appears as a composer, arranger, producer, annotator or flugelhorn soloist.

Dmitri Matheny Group featuring vocalist Gail Pettis is scheduled to play opening night on July 30 at the Pearl Bar & Grill from 7 to 10 p.m. They have played just two gigs over the past couple of months. But since the restrictions were lifted the group has been booked solid, so they should be well versed by the time they hit Ellensburg.

“I love making music in small venues where you can see the faces of the people in the audience and get their feedback and play too them,” Matheny said. “Some of these big outdoor festivals you do, the audience is 200 yards away. Sometimes the smaller the better.”

The group will showcase the music of Stevie Wonder. Songs like “Superstition,” “Too High,” “Make Someone Happy,” “Ain’t No Lovin’,” “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” and others from the classic songbook of the Motown star.

“Stevie is amazing with all the different styles and genres he meshes up with his music. You don’t really have to try and do anything to make it more interesting,” Matheny said. “Sometimes a jazz musician will take songs by George Gershwin and add some interesting cord changes or change the key, but you don’t have to do anything like that with Stevie because it’s already there.”

Matheny has received several prestigious music awards, including “NW Instrumentalist of the Year” in the 2016 Earshot Jazz Golden Ear Awards and “Best New Artist” (with Brad Mehldau, Stefon Harris and Ravi Coltrane) in the 1999 JazzTimes Readers Poll.

Jazz in the Valley organizers parred down the 23rd annual festival from a three-day event with afternoon and evening shows throughout the day to evening shows over the course of two days.

But the festival has made its way back from the Year of the COVID and will showcase its normal wide variety of musical talent in the historic downtown district.

Rodney Harwood: award-winning journalist and columnist. Lover of golf and the written word. I can be reached at


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