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matt blistan

Spotlight: Atlanta Bliss

Follow Your Bliss -iii<

Atlanta Bliss, the first trumpeter ever to play alongside Prince, shares thoughts on his years with the musical superstar. Through his reflections, we gain insight into a question often asked when it comes to celebrity life: Is really ever possible to go home again?

Written by Father Fred Shaheen.

The recreation room in the basement of Matt Blistan’s home in Western Pennsylvania is adorned with an assortment of souvenirs from a time when he was better known to the world as “Atlanta Bliss.” Several framed concert posters, as well as RIAA gold and platinum album sales awards awards for Prince’s 1987 double album ‘Sign O’ The Times’, #1 charting ’Batman’ and other records, grace the walls. On one end is a wet-bar and in the middle of the room, a pool table. Stowed behind the bar but still on display are books about music and travel and a few extra special mementos, among them the Grammy for “Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group” awarded to Prince and the Revolution for the song “Kiss.” There’s a stereo system as well as a sizable collection of vinyl records. Music fills the room - a cassette recording of a ten-piece group Matt played in with Eric Leeds, the other half of the “Prince horn section.” It sounds like futuristic jazz-funk, and I tell him that it reminds me of something on a Funkadelic album. Blistan informs me that the “spacey” sound is in fact made by his electric trumpet and not a synthesizer. “That was a tune I wrote called “Space in Time,”” he says. “I played a lot of electric trumpet in ‘Takin’ Names.” Intrigued by Miles Davis’ electric era, Matt Blistan was keen on developing an electric sound of his own.


When someone mentions jazz-influenced pop music in the eighties, one might think Sting or Sade. But Prince? His most well-known songs have mined classic pop, rock, funk and rhythm and blues. But the jazz-informed side to Prince’s work, including club shows, spontaneous studio sessions and pseudonymous satellite projects, under the moniker ‘Madhouse’, has either gone unheard by the masses, or been sorely under documented. Even the third Prince and the Revolution album ‘Parade’, is an oddity. A highly original mix of jazz-tinged baroque pop and earthy funk. And although the album sold over 1.5 million copies in the US when Prince-mania was still at its peak, apart from the #1 song “Kiss,” Parade seems to be regarded somewhat of a “deep cuts” Prince record.

Atlanta Bliss is the first trumpeter to play with Prince, whose recording debut with the Minneapolis superstar was on the song “Mountains,” the final track recorded for ‘Parade’. Is it a coincidence that Matt Blistan, now performing with the stage name Atlanta Bliss, comes on the scene just as Prince’s musical universe is expanding into jazzy terrain? Looking critically at the dramatic way Prince’s sound evolved - for example, between 1999 and ‘Parade’ - it wouldn’t be off base to call it serendipity. The narrative could go like this: Atlanta Bliss’ and Eric Leeds’ entrance into Prince’s musical orbit happens just as Prince begins incorporating brass instruments into his sound, forging complex arrangements of his songs on record and leading the band in stretched-out jams onstage. Or, like this: Blistan, a jazz cat at heart, who plays pop and R&B, gets called to work with arguably the greatest pop and R&B musician of the era, whose music is beginning to exhibit a serious flirtation with more traditional sounds, namely jazz. Though temperamental and moody at times, the Muse likes it when things in the universe balance out.

The Universe Is Expanding.

“Miles Davis was my first trumpet mentor,” Matt recalls. “I listened to ‘Kind of Blue’ day and night to the point where I could play his solos right along with him on the record.” He also cites Randy Brecker and Freddie Hubbard as major influences. “Miles and Prince were very much alike, very eclectic and never satisfied with standing still musically,” Matt observes. “Miles went from bebop to cool jazz, progressive jazz, electric jazz to pop. Prince went from pop to R&B to funk to rock.” And in the mid-eighties, another element was added to Prince’s musical pallet: brass instruments. His early albums had been essentially the work of a one-man band. Bass, guitar, drums, keyboards, synthesizers and vocals - lead and background - were largely handled solo by Prince. As for horns...well, he didn’t play them so they didn’t appear on his records. That approach was consistent with Prince’s past-jettisoning, future-focused image. Soon, though, the artist would expand the boundaries of his home-grown funk, an inventive style often referred to as “The Minneapolis Sound”, by introducing string arrangements into his work with examples being ‘Take Me With U’ and ‘Purple Rain.’ And it wouldn’t be long before his band, The Revolution, was expanded to include a horn section consisting of saxophone and trumpet.

Pittsburgh By Night.

Prior to Takin’ Names, Matt Blistan played in Alki Steriopolous Quintet, a five-piece band, and On The Corner, a ten-piece. All three groups included his friend and “musical brother” Eric Leeds. In 1979, Blistan formed his own outfit, The Parker Brothers (sans Leeds), an eight-piece in which he played trumpet and flugelhorn. “We were the house band for a Pittsburgh hotspot called The Boardwalk,” he says. The club’s theme was the Monopoly board,” he adds, explaining the significance of the band’s name (Parker Brothers is the company that gave us Monopoly). As the bandleader, Blistan says he hired the best musicians in Pittsburgh. “We all loved jazz,” he says, recalling the scene at the dawn of the Eighties. “But the pop/rock scene in Pittsburgh was big so that is where the gigs were!” Blistan and Leeds, students at Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University, were jazz players at heart who both loved pop and R&B too. “Jazz is my first love,” Matt asserts. “The transition from jazz to pop/R&B was easy,” he recalls. “We found that Pittsburgh loved pop/R&B too so we started the On the Corner band. Eric’s brother, Alan Leeds, was our bands manager. We played some great pop music while incorporating a lot of our jazz concepts in that band too.”

Horns: Stand Up, Please.

In November of 1985, Matt Blistan was summoned to the Twin Cities by his friend and former band mate Eric Leeds, who was already playing in the expanded Revolution, to try out for Prince, who was looking for a trumpet player. At the time, Blistan was living in Atlanta, where he had relocated from Pittsburgh, and hadn’t played for several months. The plan had been for him to fly up and do some sort of audition. But before he even left for Minneapolis, Matt learned that the audition was cancelled. “I started to think, maybe this wasn’t meant to be,” he recalls. But soon Leeds called him to tell him that his audition would now be a recording session! On November 30th 1985, the basic tracking was completed for “Mountains,” the other hit from Parade (it reached #23 on the Pop charts).

Prince had been moving his band, The Revolution, into new musical territory ever since the ‘Purple Rain’ Tour, which kicked off in November of ‘84. He began incorporating Eddie Minnefield on sax (recruited from Sheila E.’s band), and from February till the end of the tour in April, Eric Leeds. For the 1986 trek, Prince expanded the lineup to from five members to a whopping eleven, adding dancers, a second guitarist, and a horn section - Eric on saxophone and “Atlanta Bliss” on trumpet. When he came on, there was already a “Matt” in the band - keyboardist Matt Fink - so Prince created a stage name for him. Blistan recalls: “Prince came into rehearsal on the second day I arrived. He’s dancing and playing air trumpet, and he’s singing, ‘Atlanta Bliss plays like this.’” The name stuck.


Upon querying Matt Blistan about his own musical background asking: Did he think that he and Prince were coming from different places musically? “I think Prince was listening to many of the bands Eric and I were covering every night in our bands: Earth Wind & Fire, Average White Band, Tower of Power, Kool and the Gang, etc. And his father was a jazz musician,” Matt ob-serves. “But Prince didn’t really explore that kind of music until ‘Madhouse,” he says, referring to the mysterious semi fictional group - being that it wasn’t really a group per se, consisting mainly of just Prince and Leeds - it became an outlet for the artist’s more esoteric funk and sample-ladened instrumentals. In 1987 Madhouse released two albums on Paisley Park Records titled ‘8’ and ’16’ with the no-frills titles referring simply to the number of songs on each album, and at least two more albums under that name were recorded but never released. Matt’s contribution to Madhouse is officially limited to one track, ‘Six and 1⁄2’, the b-side of the track entitled simply ‘Six,’. ‘Six’ reached #5 on the Billboard Black Singles Chart and #24 on the 12-Inch Singles Sales Chart in 1987. Songs intended for yet another unreleased Madhouse album ’26’ evolved into what would become Eric Leeds’ first album, ‘Times Squared’, was released on Paisley Park Records in February, 1991. On this record, Atlanta Bliss is a prominent player, blowing his horn on five of the eleven cuts. He recalls those sessions with great enthusiasm: “They were a blast. I came into the studio and Eric had the charts waiting for me. Just like old times!”

The phenomenon of having the musical parts written out ahead of time (“charted”) was one that Matt didn’t often have the luxury of with Prince. He remembers: “Prince was amazing in the studio. His creativity was in one word ‘astounding.’ He worked very quickly. When Eric and I recorded with him, he would be in the control room. Prince would sing us horn parts in our head-phones as the basic track played. Then he would rewind the tape, push the ‘record’ button and we were recording!” What did he learn from the experience of working alongside someone of Prince’s caliber? Bliss says, “I tell musicians this all the time - you should always play with musicians better than yourself.” He says that makes you push yourself even more. “If you are already the best in the band then you can’t grow.”

Dancing With Mr. D.

That year of Madhouse, 1987, would prove to be a benchmark year in Prince’s remarkable career. In the spring, Prince embarked on the ‘Sign O’ The Times’ Tour in Europe, a concert run considered by some to be one of his finest. Although the tour didn’t make it to North America, it was brilliantly documented on film. A good majority of audio and video in the film was then recreated on the Paisley Park soundstage due to technical problems discovered after the filming. Prince reportedly introduced the idea of a concert film to his band and crew just days before the tour was set to finish - however, witnessing him lead the band from the hypnotic dance funk of “Hot Thing” into a Charlie Parker interlude (“Now’s The Time”) is no less impressive because of that. A few months later, Prince would host a benefit concert on New Year’s Eve 1987 on the soundstage of his newly opened Paisley Park Studio. Jazz giant Miles Davis would put in a brief appearance during “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night.” Needless to say, Atlanta Bliss was thrilled to share the stage with his greatest musical hero. “Thanks to Prince,” he recalls, “I was lucky enough to meet Miles and even talk with him on several occasions. At our first meeting he even said, “I like what you played on that last record.” What better compliment could a trumpet player receive?” he asks, showing great admiration and gratitude.

The Aftermath.

Three years earlier, the ‘Purple Rain’ album and movie had taken Prince from hot artist on the verge to bona fide superstar. It was a true watershed. Although what he released in the wake of that success would never top it in sales, one could argue that it is more fascinating and musically intriguing. ‘Around the World In A Day’ was the first Prince album to incorporate horns, with Ed-die M. blowing saxophone on “The Ladder” and “Temptation.” ‘Parade', the next album, featured sax and trumpet, courtesy of Eric Leeds and Atlanta Bliss; also adding the string orchestral work of Dr. Clare Fischer, the latter having been introduced during the recording of ‘The Family’ which was released in between the two post-‘Purple Rain’ albums. Prince never seemed content to rest on his accomplishments. Commercial success, rather than make him want to repeat a winning musical formula, challenged him to tear down the past and radically rearrange it. “I never saw him repeat himself musically,” Blistan says. “He never copied something he had already done because it was a hit. That mentality is what jazz is - never playing the same thing twice,” he ex-plains. “You always want to create something new.” Blistan recalls: “One night Eric Leeds and I walked into a home he was staying at in Hollywood when we were recording at Sunset Sound with him. Miles Davis’ ‘Sketches of Spain’ was playing. It was quite a shift from the usual pop music one might imagine Prince be listening to. It was incredible to watch his pallet grow to think that maybe we even had a bit to do with it!”

Trifecta: Parade-Sign-Lovesexy.

Genius loves company, even thrives on it. In the wake of 1999 and its success, Prince was being exposed to different kinds of music via his closest collaborators. Wendy Melvoin, guitarist of the Revolution, and her twin sister Susannah, female voice of ‘The Family’ had grown up on Led Zeppelin and The Beatles records; Lisa Coleman of the Revolution had a background in classical music; and with Eric and Atlanta, a horn section was incorporated into the group for the first time ever. The influence of his bandmates on Prince, particularly during this period, was fascinating to witness. Indeed the run of three major albums - ‘Parade', ‘Sign O’ The Times’ and ‘Lovesexy’ - along with their accompanying tours, represents what a good number of his fans consider the apex of Prince’s artistic creativity. Asked to pick one from that trifecta as a favorite, based on any criteria he desired, Matt choose a dark horse. Prince’s infamous ‘Black Album’ that had a planned release in December 1987. Save for a few copies that were not able to be recalled when Prince suddenly decided the album was “evil” and pulled it after it had already shipped to record stores and didn’t see an official release until 1994, And why not? The ‘Black Album’ was recorded right in between the recording sessions for ‘Sign ‘O The Times’ and the decidedly more upbeat ‘Lovesexy’, and was after all originally scheduled for release in that sequence.

Serendipity Redux.

“That was a super creative time for Prince. Eric and I spent tons of time in the studio with him during that period,” Bliss remembers fondly of 1986-88. Even more remarkable is that, in addition to the aforementioned albums, the same era produced a number of projects that were cancelled (‘Dream Factory’), truncated (‘Crystal Ball’), or like ‘The Black Album’, given a limited release. “We were always doing something,” Matt exclaims about his years with Prince. “If we weren’t playing concerts, we were recording, rehearsing, filming video or doing a photoshoot. It was non-stop.” I had wanted to ask him about “Power Fantastic,” one track in particular in which the palpable chemistry of the Revolution can be heard in full flower. Not surprisingly, Matt brought it up himself after I asked him to choose one song during the Prince years that stood out to him. More serendipity. In his liner notes to Prince’s ‘The Hits/The B-sides’, Alan Leeds has noted how most people had assumed Miles Davis played on the song, which had been circulating unofficially amongst hardcore Prince collectors for years. Matt sees that famous miscredit as nothing but a compliment of the highest order, being that it was his own hornwork on the track. The bootleg version of “Power Fantastic” is more complete: it includes a minute and a half intro, in which Bliss’ trumpet takes the lead, that was excised when it was released officially in 1993.

Outside of Prince's catalogue, Blistan has played on sessions for Patti Labelle, Kid Creole, Mavis Staples, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Bonnie Raitt and others. Which of those did he find especially memorable? “The sessions with George Clinton were classic,” he says of his work on 1989’s ‘The Cinderella Theory’ and 1993’s ‘Hey Man...Smell My Finger’.“George brought Eric and me into the control room, played the tracks for us and let us go!” In 1991, he and Eric played as the horn section in Clinton’s band at a few shows. “Those are nights I will never forget.” He also recalls working on Sheila E.’s album: “What a player she is,” he says giving praise to her musical skills and energy level.

After the three notable tours, Prince took the band to Japan for a brief jaunt there in early 1989. With no new band project in the works, most of the ‘Lovesexy' band dispersed. Matt and Eric were asked by Prince to stay close by to work on his sessions with other artists. Matt can be heard on the ‘Batman’ and ‘Graffiti Bridge' albums, and appears briefly in the latter film. But by 1991, the session work had stopped and Blistan decided to move with his family back to the city that spawned his stage name, Atlanta and eventually all the way back home to his native Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

It Is Possible.

When I first connected with Matt, he had been away from the music business for the better part of 25 years. Prince’s unexpected death that April had brought him back into the spotlight when several Pittsburgh TV stations and newspapers, upon learning that a former Prince associate was living in the area, contacted him for an interview. When he learned of Prince’s death, like many of us, Matt was shocked. He went to Minneapolis and participated in a private memorial service with his Revolution bandmates, but other than that hasn’t been involved in any musical reunions or Prince tributes. Reflecting on his time with Prince, he has fond memories, many of them non-musical. He tells me how much he loved seeing Europe and Japan on the tours. He always made sure to travel in a way that allowed him to take in the local sights and not just get from venue to venue. He recounts with excitement how, on tour with Prince, he crossed paths with two of his favorite musicians, Wynton Marsalis and Sting. Presently, Matt Blistan is the National Vice President of a Fraternal Life Insurance Company, the sixth largest of such in the US. He is passionate about travel and motorcycling. At home, he seems content living life away from the music business.

Back in his basement, Matt streams the newest posthumous release issued by the Prince Estate on his MacBook Pro while looking through stacks of memorabilia, some music-related and some not. Always happy and open to discussing music, he is grateful for the interest and support fans have shown to the music he worked on with Prince. “Prince fans are the best!!” he states emphatically. Matt shows me a few hand-written cards given to him by his former boss on birth-days, anniversaries and other special occasions. He has dates in an appointment book that record his activity during the Prince years. Whether it’s a ten hour rehearsal (not unusual), a recording session, a concert, or an after-hours club show, these mementos document the dizzying pace of that unique period in the life of Matt Blistan, aka Atlanta Bliss. Seeing his personal, non-musical notes - dentist appointments and the like - logged in the same book reveals an unexpected dimension to his brush with rock and roll celebrity; one that is richly human and refreshingly down-to-earth.

Atlanta Bliss’ Parade

Here’s a baker's dozen of Matt Blistan’s most memorable musical moments:

1. Power Fantastic - released on ‘The Hits/The B-sides’; extra-sublime in longer unreleased version.
2. Adore - from ‘Sign O’ The Times’.
3. Positivity - from ‘Lovesexy’.
4. Eye Know - from ‘Lovesexy’.
5. Rockhard in a Funky Place - from ‘The Black Album’.
6. Six and ½ - b-side to “Six” released on 7” and 12” vinyl.
7. Slow Love - released on ‘Sign O’ The Times’; also superb live version from the film.
8. Housequake (7 Minutes Mo’ Quake) - released on 12” vinyl.
9. Mountains extended - released on 12” vinyl. Catch the video (album version) on the official Prince YouTube channel and see if you can spot Matt and Eric doing “the wooden leg dance.”
10. Kiss extended - released on ‘Ultimate Prince’ and on 12” vinyl.
11. ‘Times Squared’ - released on Eric Leeds’ album of the same name.
12. Benefit Show for Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless at Paisley Park, New Years Eve 1987 - professionally recorded but never officially released, features a cameo by Miles Davis. Video circulates on YouTube.
13. Club Show at Trojan Horse in Amsterdam, August 19,1988 - professionally recorded but never released. Odd date in which Eric Leeds stayed back and Matt played all horn parts.


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