Matthew Stevens Releases “Pittsburgh,” a Solo Acoustic Guitar album on Whirlwind Recordings, Oct 1 2021       


He may not have known it before, but Toronto-born, New York-based guitarist Matthew Stevens, prized for his forceful, distinctive electric sound on Esperanza Spalding’s groundbreaking Emily’s D+EvolutionExposure and the GRAMMY-winning 12 Little Spells, was an ideal candidate to make an album fully devoted to the solo acoustic guitar: the intimate, unadorned, straightforwardly titled Pittsburgh. Stevens’ previous two outings, Woodwork (2015) and Preverbal (2017), made use of steel-string acoustic as a vibrant textural contrast, notably on “Brothers” and “Our Reunion” (featuring Spalding as guest and co-composer). Still, a solo acoustic album seemed to Stevens like a “maybe someday” prospect, if that. Then came the convergence of two major events — the COVID-19 pandemic and a fractured elbow.

By September 2020, Stevens was hunkering down in his wife’s family’s hometown of Pittsburgh, still busy with adjunct teaching (virtually) at Baltimore’s Peabody Institute while navigating his way through the crisis. He had with him a vintage Martin 00-17, a small-body mahogany guitar that he bought not long after recording Exposure with Spalding (the studio had a different one in its possession and Stevens used it fairly extensively on that album). Practicing daily on the Martin, he began generating a series of short song “starts” — ideas and sketches he thought might lead somewhere. With the help of his friend, go-to drummer, and producer Eric Doob, he made preliminary versions of some of the Pittsburgh material for The Jazz Gallery’s virtual “Lockdown Sessions” video series, and the vision started to take on a more concrete form.

Then one rainy Pittsburgh day, Stevens’ bike slid out from under him and he broke his right elbow. Rather than getting derailed musically, he became immersed in a creative process that led straight to Pittsburgh: a document of those short song “starts” from the notebook, now hatched as completed compositions. “Playing this music became a big part of my rehab,” Stevens recalls. “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 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 you should play.’ I really could have been flailing, but the solo project offered me 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.

As the album took shape, it became clear to Stevens that he was headed in the direction of a wholly unaccompanied recital, with no overdubs or sound layering of any kind. Just him and this special Martin, two Neumann U89 mics, and enough peace of mind across two separate sessions to make Pittsburgh the triumph that it is. “I’ve always felt that playing acoustic is a great way to develop a touch and a connection to an instrument,” Stevens comments. “There’s no apparatus that helps you be expressive, play dynamically, or create ambiance on an acoustic guitar. So when you develop that, it’s something you can carry with you into playing electric.

Compositionally, there are discernible families of songs on Pittsburgh: the rapidly flowing, intricately arpeggiated pattern pieces such as “Purpose of a Machine,” “Can Am” (named in honor of Stevens’ recently acquired American citizenship) and “Cocoon” (a thorough reworking of a piece first heard on Preverbal); the tranquil, hymn-like songs “Foreign Ghosts,” “Ending Is Beginning” and “Miserere”; and the grittier, more timbrally “outside” inventions such as “Ambler” and “Northern Touch.” Throughout, we hear a rich resonance and immediacy in Stevens’ touch, a flavor all his own, even as he draws inspiration from John McLaughlin, Pat Metheny, Marc Ribot, and other jazz guitar greats who’ve made acoustic exploration a significant part of their legacy.

In addition to his extensive high-profile work with Esperanza Spalding (serving as co-producer on Exposure and 12 Little Spells), Stevens is also a member, songwriter, and co-producer of Terri Lyne Carrington’s GRAMMY-nominated Social Science band. He has made vital contributions to groups led by Dave Douglas, Linda May Han Oh, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Ben Williams, Sean Jones, Jacky Terrasson, Harvey Mason, Next Collective, Erimaj (Jamire Williams), and more. With tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III he co-leads the In Common collective, which will soon release its third volume with an extraordinary lineup featuring Carrington, Kris Davis, and Dave Holland. Stevens has also amassed many credits beyond the jazz world, collaborating on forthcoming releases by Anna B Savage, Jamila Woods, Tyler Armes (Murdagang), and Berlin-based electronic artist Robag Wruhme.

Wholly unaccompanied on a 1956 Mahogany Martin 00-17, Stevens presents 11 new original pieces brimming with invention and warm,

brilliant steel-string tone

Available October 1, 2021, via Whirlwind Recordings

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