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Matthew Stevens



by Ian Mann

December 17, 2015


“Woodwork” represents a hugely impressive leadership début from Stevens who scores highly as both a guitarist and a composer.

Matthew Stevens


(Whirlwind Recordings WR4677)

Toronto born, New York based guitarist and composer Matthew Stevens has played as a sideman for an impressive roster of jazz artists including trumpeter Christian Scott, saxophonist Walter Smith III, pianist Jacky Terrasson, bassist Esperanza Spalding and drummers Terri Lyne Carrington and Harvey Mason. He is also a member of the all star NEXT Collective, a stellar collection of contemporary young jazz musicians whose line up also includes Scott and Smith.

I’ve been fortunate enough to see Stevens perform live on two separate occasions, once at the 2010 London Jazz Festival with Christian Scott’s band and again in 2013 when he appeared in Birmingham as part of a quartet led by Walter Smith III. On each occasion he impressed with his intelligent and imaginative playing whether in the role of soloist or accompanist. I’ve also reviewed a couple of albums on which he’s appeared, Scott’s excellent “Yesterday You Said Tomorrow” and Terrasson’s somewhat uneven “Push”, both dating from 2010.

Stevens’ musical connections have led him to Michael Janisch’s Whirlwind Recordings label for the release of his first album as a leader. Recorded in New York the album features a quintet line up with the guitarist joined by pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Vicente Archer, drummer Eric Doob and percussionist Paulo Stagnaro. The material comprises of eleven original compositions by Stevens plus a cover of the David Bowie song “Sunday”.

Stevens says of the album title; “It’s a metaphor for the way I make music. Woodwork is an act of creation in collaboration with the natural world, it invokes a sense of being handmade or one of a kind. These raw materials exist regardless of whether or not you do something with them, so I try to respect that and let the music unfold naturally”. He continues “I put a microphone in front of my guitar as well as the amp so it didn’t just feel in your face, but like the music was alive and moving around the room”. This represents Stevens’ attempt to humanise the sound of the electric guitar, to give it the same tactile, vocal quality of a trumpet or a saxophone.

As I’ve observed in my reviews of his live performances Stevens is a highly versatile guitarist who is able to play in a variety of styles ranging from pure jazz to indie rock. Despite comparisons to Pat Metheny, Kurt Rosenwinkel and others Stevens is very much his own man and has already developed a distinctive voice on his chosen instrument.

The album opens with the relatively brief “Ashes (one)”, the title perhaps another oblique Bowie reference. At the heart of the piece is the dialogue between Stevens’ cleanly picked guitar and the patter of Stagnaro’s percussion with the latter closing out this tantalising ‘overture’ unaccompanied.

“Star L.A.” finds Stevens adopting a more obvious fusion sound that others have compared to Larry Carlton. The piece is fuelled by the hypnotic drum and bass grooves generated by Archer and Doob and for me there’s also a hint of Pat Metheny in Stevens’ sound, a comparison that his increasingly vigorous exchanges with pianist Clayton encourage. Although it begins in a style vaguely reminiscent of ‘smooth jazz’ the music becomes becomes more animated, more complex and more interesting as it progresses with both Stevens and Clayton making increasingly impressive contributions.

The title track has something of that warmth of tone that Stevens spoke of searching for and is another excellent example of the way in which he is able to combine memorable melodies with more complex musical ideas. There’s an expansive and impressive piano solo from Clayton that again complements the quality of Stevens’ own playing.

“Sequel” has an urgent, knottier, altogether more urban feel with its skittering, shifting grooves but this feeling is again balanced by the warmth of Stevens’ tone and some more terrific interchanges between guitar and piano. The piece includes also something of a feature for percussionist Stagnaro.

“Blasted” is more spare and spacious with a circular melody that is said to have been influenced by the writing of Wayne Shorter. There’s a languid feel to the piece that includes some wonderfully melodic bass from Archer, the light, splashy cymbal touch of Doob and another exceptional Clayton solo. Stevens then radically alters the mood of the piece in its closing stages with the introduction of an unexpectedly chunky guitar riff.

The Bowie tune, “Sunday” begins in impressionistic manner with shimmering guitar and electric piano before establishing a more solid groove which is embellished by the FX drenched sound of Stevens’ guitar and solos from both Stevens and Clayton, the latter deploying both electric and acoustic sounds. Although the tune is sourced from Bowie’s 2002 album “Heathen” this performance sounds closer in spirit to the so called “Berlin Trilogy” recordings.

Electronic sounds are also central to the brief but urgent and bustling “Gut Check”. However “Brothers”, a delightful piece performed as a trio with just Archer and Doob offers a complete contrast. Here Stevens plays an early 1970s Lowden acoustic guitar that once belonged to the late folk singer Pete Seeger. It’s a beautiful performance that is superbly captured by the production and engineering team. The instrument sounds great and Stevens doesn’t waste a note as he makes maximum use of the space afforded by the pared down trio situation.

“Ashes (two)” also features acoustic guitar sounds and renews the dialogue between Stevens and Stagnaro that opened the album, this time with Archer and Doob becoming more involved. Stevens’ nimble picking is complemented by the busy but tasteful rhythmic accompaniment.

As the title might suggest “Uptown Dance Party” is an updating of the sounds of classic 70s electric fusion with Stevens adopting a heavily distorted tone above a frantic rhythmic backdrop as Clayton’s piano offers a glimmer of a balancing lyricism.

“Grown Ups” offers a more mature take on the fusion theme with its mix of electric and acoustic sounds before things take a more obviously jazz turn with expansive solos from both Stevens on guitar and Clayton on acoustic piano. In this respect it follows a very similar trajectory to the earlier “Star L.A.”

The album concludes with “Gently”, a beautiful duet featuring Stevens on guitar and Clayton at the piano. Their dialogue is calm, unhurried and eloquent, a conversation of equals with its delicately interlacing melody lines.

“Woodwork” represents a hugely impressive leadership début from Stevens who scores highly as both a guitarist and a composer. His tunes embrace a wide variety of moods and styles and the writing is reflected in the playing with Stevens delivering an impressive variety of guitar sounds, both electric and acoustic. His playing is refreshingly cliché free and on this album Stevens distinguishes himself as one of the most original guitar players around.

He receives excellent support from his band, Archer and Doob are a flexible and intelligent rhythm pairing and Stagnaro adds welcome splashes of colour periodically. But it’s Clayton who impresses most, not only for his many excellent solos but also for the quality of his ensemble playing, the relationship between guitar and piano is not always an easy one but Stevens and Clayton make a great team.

Stevens is due to tour the UK playing music from this album sometime in 2016. Whether he will bring the full album line up remains to be seen but in any event this should be a series of gigs well worth catching. Watch this space.

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