by Ian Mann
October 26, 2021
Although recorded in difficult circumstances it represents an intimate portrait of Stevens as an acoustic guitarist. A dazzling display of technique rooted inside a strong compositional framework.
(Whirlwind Recordings WR4779)
Matthew Stevens – acoustic guitar
Toronto born guitarist and composer Matthew Stevens moved to New York in 2007 and has since become a leading figure on the North American jazz scene.
I first became aware of his playing when he appeared as a member of trumpeter Christian Scott’s band at the 2010 London Jazz Festival. Stevens recorded several albums with Scott, at one time essentially functioning as the trumpeter’s ‘right hand man’.
Other notable collaborations have been with bassist / vocalist Esperanza Spalding, with whom he fulfilled a similar function, and with drummer Terri Lyne Carrington’s Social Science group. My review of Carrington’s 2019 album “Waiting Game”, featuring Stevens can be found here;
Stevens has also recorded as a sideman with pianists Jacky Terrasson and Justin Kauflin, bassists Ben Williams, Linda May Han Oh and Michael Oien, drummer Harvey Mason, trumpeters Sean Jones and Leron Thomas, saxophonist Chet Doxas and with the bands ERIMAJ and NEXT Collective.
Stevens made his début as a leader in 2015 with the excellent “Woodwork”, released on the Whirlwind Recordings label. This featured a quintet line up including pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Vicente Archer, drummer Eric Doob and percussionist Paul Stagnaro. Incorporating acoustic and electric sounds and embracing a variety of musical styles this was a mature and assured first statement and the album is reviewed here;
Stevens moved to the Ropeadope label for the more obviously fusion album “Preverbal” (2017), recorded with a ‘power trio’ featuring both Archer and Doob and with Esperanza Spalding briefly guesting. In 2017 I saw the trio of Stevens, Doob and bassist Zach Brown, who was substituting for Archer, play a set at Ronnie Scott’s as part of that year’s EFG London Festival. It was enjoyable enough but overall “Preverbal” lacked the scope and nuance of “Woodwork”, despite the presence of Spalding and the sometime deployment of electronics. One of Stevens’ great strengths thus far has been his versatility but for me the “Preverbal” trio focussed too intently on a single aspect of his playing.
In addition to these two solo releases Stevens has also been the co-leader of the In Common project, a collaboration with the saxophonist Walter Smith III, one of his bandmates in the all star NEXT Collective. Under the band name Walter Smith III & Matthew Stevens Quintet the pair have released two “In Common” recordings for Whirlwind.
The first, released in 2018 featured vibraphonist Joel Ross, bassist Harish Raghavan and drummer Marcus Gilmore. Straddling the cusp between composition and improvisation this was an excellent release, the music being enjoyable and intriguing in equal measure. Review here;
In 2020 “In Common 2” appeared on Whirlwind, which saw Stevens and Smith exploring broadly similar territory with a new trio of collaborators, namely pianist Micah Thomas, bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Nate Smith.
The second “In Common” album was actually recorded in 2019 but the onset of the pandemic found Stevens hunkering down in his wife’s hometown of Pittsburgh, with only a Martin 00-17 acoustic guitar for company. With gigs having dried up he supported himself financially by continuing to teach remotely for Baltimore’s Peabody Institute, where he holds a regular teaching post.
Using the Martin he began to write a series of short song “starts”, ideas and sketches that he forwarded to Doob, who also works as an acclaimed producer. Some of these found their way onto The Jazz Gallery’s “Lockdown Sessions” video series.
At this point fate threw yet another curve ball at Stevens when his bicycle skidded on a rainy Pittsburgh day, leaving him with a broken elbow, a potentially catastrophic injury for a guitarist. Readers may recall that Mike Stern broke both elbows in a fall sustained while running for a cab in New York City, but was eventually able to return to the bandstand following a lengthy period of surgery and rehabilitation. The title of Stern’s album “Trip” wryly referenced the incident and provided much of the material that I saw played at Ronnie Scott’s at the 2017 EFG London Jazz Festival as Stern co-led a quartet with the great drummer Dave Weckl.
It may be that Stern was a source of inspiration for Stevens as the Canadian determined to continue the creative process begun with his trusty Martin, developing his earlier sketches into fully fledged compositions.
In the album press release Stevens himself takes up the story;
“Playing this music became a big part of my rehab. My aunt is a physical therapist, so I was doing sessions with her online. She said that what we do as guitar players is so specific it uses muscle groups we’re not even aware of. She told me I needed to start playing again as soon as I could, so those things don’t seize up and you don’t lose strength. She said ‘I know you can’t lift a shopping bag, but if you feel like you can play at all then you should play’. I really could have been flailing but the solo project offered a different path, I had material to work on and I could just lose myself in it because it required so much repetition, such close attention to things that are slow and deliberate. It spared me from a lot of mental anguish”.
Simply named for the location in which it was recorded “Pittsburgh” is an entirely acoustic record, very different from Stevens’ previous work, both as a solo artist and as a collaborator with others.
“I’ve always felt that playing acoustic is a great way to develop a touch and a connection to the instrument” explains Stevens, “there’s no apparatus that helps you be expressive, play dynamically, or create ambience on an acoustic guitar, so when you develop that it’s something that you can carry with you into playing electric.”
Recorded at the Audible Images Studio in Pittsburgh on January 28th and March 4th 2021 with just the Martin guitar and two Neumann U89 mics and with Jay Dudt engineering the finished album was co-produced by Stevens and Doob. It’s a very personal release from a player well known as a hugely influential collaborator, and as such represents something of a landmark in his career, albeit one brought about by an unfortunate series of events.
Stevens mentions John McLaughlin, Pat Metheny and Marc Ribot as inspirations for this album, but I’m also reminded of the solo recordings of the great Ralph Towner. Granted, Towner may be primarily associated with the twelve string guitar but the range of sounds that Stevens summons from the Martin are equally impressive. Like Towner he takes an ‘orchestral’ approach to his instrument and he conjures an admirably wide array of moods, colours and textures from this simplest of sources, his technique clearly undamaged by his accident.
The eleven pieces begin with “Ambler”, a beguiling, if slightly dark, exploration of the Martin’s sonic capabilities, embracing a variety of techniques and extended techniques, but remaining accessible despite its nods to the avant garde.
“Purpose Of A Machine” commences with brightly chiming arpeggios, the patterns dancing like dappled sunlight. It’s all very charming, but also a triumph of technique. No overdubs or sound layering were used on the recording and you’re left wondering just how Stevens does it, much as one does when listening to Towner or to the veteran British guitarist Michael Chapman.
“Buckets” is more ruminative, an unhurried acoustic exploration rich in terms of colour and texture and reminiscent of Towner at his most reflective.
Written in honour of Stevens’ recently acquired American citizenship “Can Am” is another dazzling example of intricate arpeggiated playing, one that exudes a genuine spirit of celebration.
“Foreign Ghosts” places the onus on lyricism and tranquillity, with less focus on pure technique. It has been described as “hymn like”, and I’m also reminded of the ‘Americana’ style pieces of Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell, compositions inspired by the Mid Western landscape.
For a solo acoustic guitar album “Pittsburgh” is admirably varied. “Northern Touch” is a companion piece to the opening “Ambler”, loosely structured and again nudging at the avant garde in a style that the press release describes as being “outside”. It may be less obviously melodic than some of the other pieces, but like its companion it is never less than compelling.
A trio version of “Cocoon” appeared on the “Preverbal” album, but this solo rendition sounds very different, skilfully mixing intricately picked arpeggios with vigorous chordal strumming.
“Ending Is Beginning” represents another wander into the world of Frisell style Americana, this time darker in tone, with occasional atmospheric avant garde flourishes.
Stevens delivers some of his most virtuoso playing on “Blue Blues”, one of the album’s most memorable pieces with its blend of dizzying arpeggios, gutsy strumming and strong melodies.
“Broke” displays an almost courtly elegance within a typically complex framework while “Miserere” continues the process as the album ends on a tranquil “hymn-like” note.
Although recorded in difficult circumstances “Pittsburgh” represents an intimate portrait of Stevens as an acoustic guitarist. Despite his trials and tribulations he has obviously made a full recovery from his cycling accident and the standard of his playing is exceptional throughout, a dazzling display of technique rooted inside a strong compositional framework. As previously alluded to the range of styles and moods is genuinely impressive, as is the range of colours and textures, with the production team bringing out every detail and nuance of the playing in a needle sharp mix.
“Pittsburgh” represents an admirable triumph over adversity and it’s an album that every guitar enthusiast will want to hear, particularly fans of Metheny, Frisell and Towner, and given the circumstances probably Stern as well.
Although born out of necessity “Pittsburgh” demonstrates Stevens’ versatility and adaptability as a guitarist, the circumstances surrounding it ultimately combining to help make him a more mature and in demand musician.blog comments powered by Disqus