Liany Mateo started playing the bass when she was 13 years old. “They opened up a performing arts school in Jersey City,” she recalled. “At that time, I knew I wanted to play an instrument. I was into ‘70s punk music, and all of my favorite people in those bands were the (electric) bass players. I really liked the idea of being behind the scenes, having a job, and supporting other people.”
At PS 41, the Fred W. Martin Center for the Arts, Mateo was enrolled in a guitar class. “The first day of class, I said, ‘I don’t want to play guitar. I want to play bass.’ Then, I got introduced to jazz music. People at that school would give me compilation CDs. The guitar teacher showed us a video of Wes Montgomery, and I wasn’t paying attention to Wes Montgomery. I was looking at the upright bass player in the back. I had never seen an upright bass before. And this was about a week after I got an electric bass for my 13th birthday. I remember thinking, ‘That (upright bass) is really what I want to play.”
The summer before Mateo was scheduled to enter Henry Snyder High School, a four-year performing arts public high school in Jersey City, she discovered, “they had an upright bass they hadn’t used in years. They said, ‘If you come here, you can take the bass home for the summer.’”
When she was 16, Mateo attended the New York Jazz Symposium camp at Snow College in Ephraim, Utah, where she met Rodney Whitaker, the bass teacher there. “That,” she said, “changed my life. It was the year before my junior year in high school. That’s when you start thinking about college. At my high school, you’re going to go to community college or to college in-state. You hope for a conservatory or out-of-state college, but you don’t think that’s the goal. Rodney said, ‘I teach at a school in Michigan (Michigan State). We have a camp for prospective students. You should do it next summer.’ That’s how it all started. He took me under his wing. Not only did he encourage me to apply to Michigan State, but he encouraged me to apply to other programs outside of New Jersey that were conservatories.”
Mateo received an academic scholarship to Michigan State where she majored in Jazz Studies. Whitaker remembers her as, “the most curious kid, very intelligent, and a natural born bass player. I named her ‘Miss PC’, for Paul Chambers. You could tell she was so serious.”
Michigan State, Mateo said, was a great experience. She graduated with a Bachelors Degree in Jazz Studies in 2020. During her senior year, she was recognized as the Outstanding Bass player at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s inaugural Jack Rudin Championship, a competition among students from 10 colleges and universities around the country. “Everyone in the big band,” she said, “were some of my closest friends in the world. The vibe was like, ‘We’re just going to have fun.’ I was pretty nervous to do a solo. I was the only bassist to win an award that year, so it was really special to me.”
While at Michigan State, Mateo was also part of the Becoming Quintet, which included trumpeter Eric Wortzman, saxophonist/flutist Markus Howell, pianist Luther Allison, and drummer Zach Adleman. The group released an album called One-Track Mind on the Posi-Tone label in January 2019. Eight of the 11 tracks are original compositions by the members. There are two compositions by trombonist Michael Dease, an MSU faculty member, and one original tune by trombonist Steve Davis. Allison is now the Grammy Award-winning vocalist Samara Joy’s regular pianist. Adleman, originally from Montclair, NJ, appeared at the New Jersey Jazz Society’s June Jersey Jazz Live! concert as part the Ted Rosenthal Trio.
Meanwhile, the 25-year-old Mateo has been very busy since graduation. She was the bassist on pianist Arturo O’Farrill’s Blue Note album, Legacies, released in 2023. Reviewing it for DownBeat, Frank Alkyer wrote that the rhythm section of O’Farrill on piano, his son Zack on drums, and Mateo on bass, “cook through Herbie Hancock’s ‘Dolphin Dance’ with surprising angular twists and turns. On O’Farrill’s own ‘Blue State Blues’, you can practically hear the smiles from the trio as they rip through these blues with a sense of pure joy.”
Having played with the Afro-Latin Alliance Fat Cats, run by Zack O’Farrill, Mateo reached out to Zack, “when I moved back to New York. Fortunately, Arturo’s band was looking to fill a bass spot. Originally, I wasn’t going to audition because I didn’t think I had the experience. But Zack was very encouraging, and I realized that I would learn something from the audition process. So, I went through the audition process, and I got the chair. It’s completely changed my life to play with him and to be on a Blue Note record. It’s surreal. It was a great experience and something I look back on and will reflect on a lot.”
Mateo recently was on the road with violinist Regina Carter. This month, she’ll be playing with vocalist Catherine Russell as part of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Jazz for Young People program. And, in November she’ll be in Europe for a month with pianist Matthew Whitaker (no relation to Rodney).
Her greatest influence on bass, Mateo said, is the legendary Milt Hinton. “I fell in love with his bass playing early on,” she added, “and I love reading about him and hearing stories about him and his humanity. I’m reading his autobiography right now (Playing the Changes: Milt Hinton’s Life in Stories and Photographs, published in 2008 by Vanderbilt University Press). He really learned how to give back to people around him. Of course, Rodney and Ben Wolfe, another of my teachers, were great influences. Christian McBride is a current mentor of mine. And, also Linda May Oh.”
Rodney Whitaker is not surprised by Mateo’s success. “She is a great bass player,” he said. “If you call her for a gig, she starts preparing the music. She’s got everything together.”-SANFORD JOSEPHSON
PHOTO BY AUDREY MATUZ