Renowned Saxophonist and Composer Miguel Zenón Releases Música de Las Américas, Inspired by the History of the American Continent

Out August 26, 2022, on Miel Music, Música de Las Américas features all-new music from Zenón for his long-time working quartet plus master percussionists from his native Puerto Rico Album release celebration August 23 – 28 at The Village Vanguard, NYC

This music is inspired by the history of the American continent: not only before European colonization but also by what’s happened since—cause and effect,” says Miguel Zenón of his latest album of all original works, Música de Las Américas. The music grew out of Zenón’s passion for the history of the American continent, and the resulting album pays tribute to its diverse cultures while also challenging modern assumptions about who and what “America” is.


Featuring his longstanding quartet of pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig, and drummer Henry ColeMúsica de Las Américas represents a broadening of scope and ambition for Zenón, who is best known for combining cutting-edge modernism with the folkloric and traditional music of Puerto Rico. In realizing such a wide-ranging project, Zenón engaged the illustrious Puerto Rican ensemble Los Pleneros de La Cresta to contribute their unmistakable plena sound to the album, with additional contributions by master musicians Paoli Mejías on percussion, Daniel Díaz on congas, and Victor Emmanuelli on barril de bomba.


Zenón’s compositions on Música de Las Américas reflect the dynamism and complexity of America’s indigenous cultures, their encounters with European colonists, and the resulting historical implications. Zenón immersed himself in these topics during the pandemic, reading classics like Eduardo Galeano’s Venas Abiertas de América Latina (Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent), which details Western exploitation of South America’s resources and became the inspiration for Zenón’s “Venas Abiertas.”


Other sources of inspiration include Sebastián Robiou Lamarche’s Taínos y Caribes”, referring to the two major societies who inhabited the Caribbean prior to European colonization and who are the subject of the album’s opener. “They were the two predominant societies but were very different: the Taínos were a more passive agricultural society while the Caribes were warriors who lived for conquest,” says Zenón, who captures the clashing of the societies in the interlocking rhythms of the piece.


Following the thread of indigenous Caribbean societies, “Navegando (Las Estrellas Nos Guían)” pays homage to the seafaring culture that existed across the region. “One thing that blew my mind was how they could travel the sea at long distances just using canoes while being guided by the stars,” says Zenón. “That opens conversations about what’s ‘archaic’ versus what’s ‘advanced’ in terms of scientific achievement between the ‘New World’ and ‘Old World.’”


Zenón referred to the star formations used for navigation by those societies as the musical foundation of the song, which prominently features the percussion and vocals of Los Pleneros de la Cresta, who sing and accompany the titular chorus: “Navegando vengo, sigo a las estrellas.”


Possibly the most challenging piece on the album in its harmonic dissonance and complexity, “Opresión y Revolución” evokes the tension and release of revolutions on the American continent, notably the Haitian Revolution among others. Featuring the percussion of Paoli Mejías matched with the percussive piano work of Perdomo, the piece also reflects the influence of Haitian vodou music, which Zenón was heavily exposed to while working with drummer Ches Smith and his ensemble “We All Break.”


Although for many the term “empire” brings to mind the contemporary Western world, Zenón composed “Imperios” with the various indigenous empires of America in mind, including the Incas, Mayans, and Aztecs. “They were some of the most advanced societies at their time; as a matter of fact, they were in some ways more advanced than what was happening in Europe in terms of contemporary mathematics and astronomy, society and politics,” says Zenón. “There was something there already that was really advanced, and it makes me think about what could have been: what would have come out of that?” The melody derives from Zenón’s transcription of music from a ceremony of Aztec descendants, which is the counterpart to the rhythmic structure of the song.


“Bambula” features percussion virtuoso Victor Emmanuelli, whom Zenón lauds for pushing the musical envelope as a bandleader in his own right. The term “bambula” refers to a dance that was brought over by African slaves to the Americas. Over time, bambula became the rhythm commonly referred to as “habanera,” which is found in much of Latin American music today. Here, Zenón captures the feeling of connection across time and space that is carried by this single rhythmic cell:


“It’s a thread from New Orleans to Brazil to Central America back to Africa, across all these eras from the past to contemporary pop,” says Zenón. “For me, I wanted it to feel like you’re out at the dance, but at the same time hearing this more modern harmony and melody.”


In highlighting these connections across geographical regions, Zenón also returns to a major theme throughout the album: the conception of America not as a country—that is, only referring to the modern United States—but as a continent. “América, el Continente” makes that point clear while reminding listeners of the political implications of the United States assuming ownership of the term “America,” with its subtle erasure of the remaining Western hemisphere.


“Antillano,” named for the residents of the Antilles, showcases what Zenón is best known for: bringing together past and present in a forward-thinking, musically satisfying way. Ending the album on an optimistic note, the piece emulates aspects of contemporary dance music while serving as a feature for Daniel Díaz on congas. Some odd-meter surprises may fly past the ear of a casual listener, but they do so without any interruption to the musical flow so naturally conveyed by Zenón’s quartet.


In confronting often challenging historical topics on Música de Las Américas, Zenón has created a masterwork, whose musical delights will inspire and uplift while spurring a conversation about the problematic power dynamics across the American continent. The premise that modern jazz cannot be both grooving and emotionally resonant to the casual listener while formally and intellectually compelling is patently false, which Zenón proves here as he has time and again throughout his career.


© Adrien Tillmann
~Copyright © 2022 Braithwaite & Katz

The Lockdown Album is Jorge Luis Pacheco’s Ropeadope debut – a beautiful reflection of our shared experiences of the early twenties

Hailing from Havana, Cuba, Jorge Luis Pacheco is one of the leading pianists and musicians of the new generation of jazz in Cuba. Winner of the Montreux Jazz Piano Solo Competition in Switzerland, Pacheco is a fiery young pianist with “flying hands.” He has performed all over the world including in prominent jazz clubs such as Dizzy’s Jazz at Lincoln Center, theaters, and festivals such as the Blue Note Jazz Festival in New York, The Piano Night in the House of Blues at the New Orleans Jazz Fest, the Sziget Festival in Budapest, Hungary and the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Israel among others.

He has also performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington several times as well as the legendary Apollo Theater where a lifetime achievement award was presented to Herbie Hancock. He has collaborated with the likes of Wynton Marsalis and the JLCO, Arturo O’ Farrill, and the legendary Lenny White as well as with Dave Weckl and Richie Goods as a trio in 2018. Pacheco is a passionate, extravagant, exciting entertainer on stage and constantly captures the audience’s attention with his heartfelt performances and electric energy. Pacheco was the winner of the JoJazz Award in Havana and in 2017 he won the Best Solo and Performance Award in the Jazz Competiton “Made in New York” in New York City with one of his own compositions – “Con el Pache me Voy”. Pacheco also has a Master’s Degree in Composition from the Instituto Superior de Arte de La Habana.

Pacheco is a virtuoso pianist, composer, arranger, percussionist and singer. Monty Alexander exclaimed that he “defies genre” – often playing Cuban jazz, traditional Cuban music, original film scores, and a new Symphony for Jazz Quartet and Symphony Orquestra that he composed, which is inspired by the music of South America and Afro Cuban Music. Pacheco showed the audience a range of different sounds from the most classic, performed by the Symphonic Orchestra to the most contemporary by the Jazz Quartet, where both joined together to achieve a balance between musical worlds.

The Lockdown Album is Jorge Luis Pacheco’s Ropeadope debut – a beautiful reflection of our shared experiences of the early twenties. The album is a beautiful presentation of his talent and style, with a modern Cuban flavor that defines the current and future iterations of Cuban style. ~Bandcamp

Jorge Luis Pacheco – Piano, Keyboard, Synthesizer, Voice
Helmut Reuter – Bass
Thomas Hempel – Drums
Anna Rabea Pacheco – Voice (songs 4 and 7)
The Twang – Chorus (song 5)

Christian Rollwage – Sound engineer, recording, mixing, and mastering
Photos by Angel Candeaux

Release Date: May 13, 2022

Pianist Martin Bejerano Releases Fourth Album, #CubanAmerican

The Miami native has been highly in demand as a sideman to GRAMMY-nominated Roy Haynes’ Fountain of Youth Band, As Well As Russell Malone, Dafnis Prieto, Roxana Amed, Ignacio Berroa & Many More

Fifteen years after the release of Evolution/Revolution, his first album as a leader, keyboardist, composer, and arranger Martin Bejerano still insists that he is not a great Latin piano player. His growing legion of fans, however, would respectfully yet adamantly disagree. Yes, his straight-ahead jazz chops dazzle with renewed energy and his way with a ballad is more than just arresting. But there’s no denying that he has come to terms with the special obligation he has to represent his Cuban heritage through his performances.

“I’m not someone who is satisfied with doing just one kind of music,” Martin readily admits, pointing to the broad stylistic diversity represented by the 10 tracks that make up the beguiling program of #CubanAmerican, his fourth release as a leader. Significantly, he is joined by the same two rhythm section partners who have been with him since the inception of his trio in 2007 – an example of longevity that’s rare in jazz today. Havana-born drummer Ludwig Afonso has performed with an eclectic group of artists, from Spyro-Gyra to guitarist Richard Bona and pianist Hector Martignon, while Edward Pérez is a first call bassist in New York City who has immersed himself in jazz, Brazilian, Afro-Peruvian, and Latin jazz styles and has performed with Paquito D’Rivera and Lee Konitz, among other notables. On several tracks, the presence of Colombian percussion whiz Samuel Torres adds extra rhythmic fire.

Born in Miami to a North American mother and a Cuban father, Martin began to show some interest in the piano when he was six years of age, picking out some tunes played by his mother. But it was not love at first sound. He preferred to spend his idle time playing baseball with his friends and dreamed about playing the drums. His mother put her foot down and offered her son a deal. If Martin would agree to take piano lessons for a year, he could switch to drums if, at the end of the year, he remained uninterested in the instrument. Happily, his mother’s intuition proved to be infallible, and the career of a budding keyboard talent was launched.

Growing up, Martin’s interest in music was fostered by both parents. His mother was particularly influential. Her great love was big band music, and Martin was exposed to the sounds of swing-era icons. He played trumpet as a youngster and began to solo on the instrument in junior high school long before he had an opportunity to solo on piano. He was infatuated with trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, who was then at the peak of his fame. He concedes that he was more drawn to horn players in high school than pianists. One that captured Martin’s attention was the hard bop saxophonist Charlie Rouse, noted for his collaboration with Thelonious Monk. Ironically, his knowledge of pianist Keith Jarrett came not through jazz sources but through his classical piano teacher. Martin admits that the first time he played a montuno – the repeated rhythmic pattern played on the piano in Afro-Cuban music – was in his high school jazz band.

By the age of 15, Martin was considered a professional, performing George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with the Mexican American Bi-National Symphony. He graduated from the esteemed New World School of the Arts and received a full scholarship to attend Florida State University. Martin earned a master’s degree from the University of Miami and today heads the jazz piano department at the university’s Frost School of Music.

An early 2000s tenure in New York City led to innumerable opportunities to perform with a succession of A-list jazz artists, further enhancing Martin’s reputation. Notably, he was engaged to perform, tour, and record with the quartets of guitarist Russell Malone and drummer Roy Haynes. Both associations proved to be long-term and further burnished Martin’s reputation as an accomplished pianist at home in both mainstream and Afro-Cuban settings.

The songs on #CubanAmerican reflect the pianist’s inherent curiosity and unique way of building a repertoire. “Ay Cosita Linda” (Oh Pretty Thing) and “Mi Cafetal” (My Coffee Plantation) are tunes that, although wildly popular in Cuba 70 years ago, were not of Cuban origin. Rather, they were penned by Colombian composers and originally set to rhythms not inherently Cuban. Martin’s circuitous methodology here is ingenious as he gives these venerable tropical music hits new life, transforming them into something thoroughly contemporary and compelling. His composition “Yo No Bailo” (I Don’t Dance) is a poignant admission that first impressions can be deceiving. “Origin Story” modulates between dreamy soundscapes and seething Afro-Cuban percussive jams, propelled by a relentless bass tumbao (ostinato). Curiously, he originally intended the session to be totally acoustic, but after critically listening to the takes, he realized the program “didn’t hit hard enough.” The solution? The 47-year-old musician added synthesizer voicings of various complexities on six of the session’s tracks, creating orchestral depth and well-focused energy that serve the date well.

Throughout #CubanAmerican Martin’s playing is unwaveringly virtuosic and joyous, sumptuous, and impassioned. And, as he reminds us once again, “It’s not Cuban music and not American music. It’s Cuban American music.”

Pianist composer Danilo Pérez w/The Global Messengers release New Recording “Crisálida” on March 18th, 2022

Pianist, composer, humanitarian, and activist Danilo Pérez believes that a united global perspective for the arts and social justice are the keys to moving humanity forward in harmony.

With Crisálida, Pérez has convened his Global Messengers – several gifted Berklee Global Jazz Institute graduates mentored by Danilo hailing from Palestine, Greece, and Jordan — to contribute their respective cultural learnings and personal experiences with the goal of building community through music, without borders. ~Mack Avenue Records

Available: March 18 via Mack Avenue Records

Listen to Danilo Pérez’s singleLA MURALLA SUITE: MONOPATIAfrom his forthcoming albumCrisálida

[NOTEWORTHY] …dynamic trio Sakésho pushes their impassioned polyrhythmic sound without compromising

Sakésho is a quartet built around the characteristic sounds of the steel pans, as played by Andy Narell. He’s the band member most familiar to American audiences, but this is truly a group enterprise, and the roles of pianist Mario Canonge, bassist Michel Alibo, and drummer Jean Philippe Fanfant are all well matched.

Their self-titled debut features the polyrhythmic music from the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe called biguine. It’s a sort of near cousin to the calypso and includes some assorted Afro-Cuban strains.

There is a celebratory nature to the music, with all of the players except Narell contributing vocals–primarily as melodic choruses that add another syncopation to the proceedings. Recorded with warmth and clarity, the genuine and friendly interplay between the four musicians is nicely captured as well. ~David Greenberger | Amazon

Originally Released: January 1, 2002

At your leisure, listen to the infectious Caribbean sounds of Sakésho



[NOTEWORTHY]… Puerto Rican saxophonist-composer Miguel Zenón sophomore album Ceremonial explores the vital elements of his musicial influences

Recorded after a successful European tour, Miguel Zenón’s quartet is engaged in both the material and with another on this album. The seven original tracks and two covers offer a bracing mix of Latin rhythms and melodic sensibilities with jazz phrasing and harmonics. From the celebratory bearing of the opening “Leyenda” (by Silvio Rodriguez) to the closing spiritual “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” emotional vitality runs through it all.

On “Transfiguration,” Zenón’s alto saxophone runs wonderful lyrical circles around the evocatively reverbed and wordless vocals of guest Luciana Souza. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, his homeland lies at the heart of his compositional sensibilities. He writes ballads of staggering beauty (“A Reminder of Us“), as well as post-bop, inspired workouts (“Ya”). Pianist Luis Perdomo is a forceful rhythmic player, as well as being cordially inventive. ~David Greenberger | Amazon 

Original Release Date: December 4, 2004

At your leisure, listen to “CEREMONIAL” by Miguel Zenón

Trumpeter/composer Adam O’Farrill – Visions of Your Other – Out November 12th on Biophilia Records


Coproduced by O’Farrill and Curtis Macdonald
with Xavier Del Castillo (tenor sax),

Walter Stinson (bass), Zack O’Farrill (drums)

After garnering high acclaim for his previous outings Stranger Days (2016) and El Maquech (2018) — plus sideman credits with trailblazing artists Mary Halvorson, Anna Webber, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Kevin Sun, and more — Adam O’Farrill (#1 Rising Star trumpeter, 2021 Downbeat Critics Poll) is proud to release the third album from his quartet Stranger Days, Visions of Your Other. The group’s musical language continues to evolve with a new member as of 2019: tenor saxophonist Xavier Del Castillo, filling the formidable shoes of tenorist Chad Lefkowitz-Brown as he joins bassist Walter Stinson and drummer Zack O’Farrill in the fold. “Xavier is deeply inquisitive, as an artist and a person,” O’Farrill says. “Walter, Zack, and I had built a strong foundation on principles of rawness and spontaneity, and Xavier brings a slightly more analytical approach, revealing to me layers of the music I didn’t even know were there.”


Visions of Your Other highlights the band’s creative growth with a set of four O’Farrill compositions (“Blackening Skies,” “Inner War,” “Ducks,” the D.H. Lawrence-inspired “Hopeful Heart”), an abstractly funky reading of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “stakra,” and a piece by Stinson (“Kurosawa at Berghain”) that “merges the propulsive rigidity of house music with the amorphous sound of the chord-less quartet,” O’Farrill notes. The album title stems from a line of dialogue in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 film The Master (starring Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman) that O’Farrill found seductive: “The visualization of potential scenarios — past, present, and future — is a very powerful current in all of us. It can motivate us just as easily as it can delude us. This theme of juxtaposition has been at the core of my work thus far, and this album is no exception.”


On the opening “stakra,” from Sakamoto’s evocative 2017 album async, O’Farrill builds texture and mood with a 20-second electronic sample of the quartet’s performance fed through Paulstretch, a sound design software application used by Sakamoto and other composers. “It’s no exaggeration to say that Sakamoto’s async album changed my life,” declares O’Farrill. “It made me rethink all of the elements of music and the way they’re prioritized. I realized that melody can involve many possibilities, and that texture is not just that — it can actually be the musical protagonist. It’s fair to say it will take a long time to fully process the impact that async has had on me.”

“Blackening Skies,” accompanied by an animated film short from German artist Elenor Kopka, is “both apocalyptic and humorous,” says O’Farrill, who composed the song after a brutal New York heatwave and an experience of summer monsoons in Los Angeles. “I told Elenor all this and she showed me the work of Hieronymus Bosch, using that as a reference point for the tone of the piece.” The staggered staccato rhythms in the horns as they play slightly out of sync is “a concept that Xavier and I have explored in previous projects, such as my large ensemble piece ‘Bird Blown Out of Latitude.’ It’s inspired by electronic music, trying to humanize something very mechanical. There’s a perfection to a lot of electronic music that allows for its ideas to be flexibly interpreted by live instruments, which opens up an exciting and endless world of sound.”

The son of GRAMMY-winning pianist and composer Arturo O’Farrill and grandson of legendary Cuban bandleader Chico O’Farrill, Adam O’Farrill has received composer commissions and grants from The Jazz Gallery, The Shifting Foundation, Metropolis Ensemble, and ASCAP. He co-led the O’Farrill Brothers Band with his older brother Zack on the albums Giant Peach and Sensing Flight. He continued his rise with Rudresh Mahanthappa on Bird Calls, as well as appearances on Mary Halvorson & Code Girl’s Artlessly Falling, Anna Webber’s Idiom, Arturo O’Farrill’s …dreaming in lions…, Chad Lefkowitz-Brown’s Imagery Manifesto, Stephan Crump’s Rhombal and more. He can also be heard on recent releases by Glenn Zaleski (The Question), Tarun Balani (The Shape of Things to Come), Gabriel Chakarji (New Beginning), Onyx Collective (Lower East Suite Part One), and Aaron Burnett & The Big Machine (Jupiter Conjunct), among others.

RELEASE DATE: November 12th, 2021

Festival International de Jazz de Montréal Sept 15-19: Montreal Jazz Festival 41st Edition!

The Festival International de Jazz de Montréal presented by TD Bank Group in collaboration with Rio Tinto is proud to announce the complete line-up for its 2021 edition! From September 15 to 19more than thirty renowned artists will once again bring the heart of the Quartier des spectacles to life. True legends of Canadian and Quebec music will occupy the TD Stage (Place des Festivals) as well as the Rio Tinto Stage (Parterre Symphonique) to offer us a series of exceptional and free concerts! Here are the artists who will be part of this 41st edition.

On Wednesday, September 15BEYRIESRanee LeeGuy Bélanger and his Blues Summit 2021 gathering the greatest artists of the local blues scene, Yannick RieuFlore Laurentienne, and Dawn Tyler Watson will launch the festivities. On Thursday, September 16, performances by the incomparable Daniel LanoisPlants, and Animals, Teke::Teke and Théo Abellard Trio will be presented and we will celebrate both the 25th anniversary of the François Bourassa Quintet as well as the release of the album Omertà with Michel CussonFriday, September 17, folk, soul, and blues-rock fans will enjoy a great evening with ElisapieBasia BulatThe BrooksClerelSteve Hill & the Devil Horns, and the Emie R Roussel Trio. On Saturday, September 18, festival-goers will vibrate to the sounds of neo-soul, hip-hop, and R&B thanks to performances by Charlotte Day WilsonShay LiaAnachnid, and Vox Sambou, while Socalled and MISC‘s exhilarating experiments will undoubtedly seduce the most avid music lovers.

The 41st edition of the Festival de Jazz de Montréal will close on Sunday, September 19, featuring Patrick WatsonGhostly Kisses, an exclusive show led by Modibo Keita who will pay tribute to Marvin Gaye to mark the 50th anniversary of the iconic album What’s Going OnSimon Leoza, and CODE Quartet. Coral EganDaniel ThouinYannick RieuAlain Caron, and Paul Brochu will also perform the late Chick Corea‘s album Light as a Feather.

The first four nights of the Festival will end at L’Astral and Club Soda as part of the Les Nocturnes series presented by Loto-Québec, which will allow the public to discover free and exclusive performances by Nomadic Massive, Nate Husser and Emma BekoFredy V & The Foundation and Snotty Nose Rez Kids.

Copyright © 2021 Braithwaite & Katz, All rights reserved.

Compared to What? Latin Soul feature’s the formidable percussionist and bandleader Poncho Sanchez

As jazz enthusiasts, we are generally overly critical of this beloved music, especially to who plays it, or anyone who doesn’t partake (listen) to it. Without question, classic jazz and its kindred spirited brethren encompass a unique montage of original recordings from a period in time that is simply unmatched by a host of exceptional artists. It’s not productive, unnecessary, unfair, and a waste of time to “compare” any of today’s artists to what’s previously been created, played, and recorded.

In the past two decades, conguero Poncho Sanchez has emerged as the West Coast’s foremost Latin-jazz bandleader. Latin Soul–his 19th release for the Concord Picante label–is a cooking set recorded live at the Conga Room in Los Angeles and Yoshi’s in Oakland. This is no loose-blowing session, but a showcase for Sanchez’s road-tight nonet featuring the Banda brothers Ramon and Tony on bass and timbales, plus a powerful four-piece horn section. Sanchez’s conga solos are seldom flashy, just rock solid.

He pays homage to the inspiration of Mongo Santamaria on “Watermelon Man” and “Besame Mama” and recalls the golden age of mambo with Tito Rodriguez‘s Mama Guela.” He sings an invitation to dance on “Ven Pa Bailar” and turns the horns loose on Eddie Cano’s boppish “Ican.” The soul side of the equation is represented by a funky medley of Eddie Harris‘s “Listen Here” and “Cold Duck Time.” ~Rick Mitchell | Amazon

At your leisure, be sure and spin the intoxicating “LATIN SOUL” by Poncho Sanchez 

Pianist/composer Matthew Whitaker is back with his third and most compelling album to date Connections produced by renowned bassist Derrick Hodge

Connections is really about this idea of community, of musicians and family and everyone really, coming back together after being separated for so long,Whitaker says. “It’s about how grateful I am for the connections we have with each other musically and spiritually as well. More than my other albums, this one has music that was created in the studio, improv moments that happened live. A few of these songs I wrote during the pandemic so I’m happy we were able to record those, and I’m excited. This is more expansive than anything else I’ve done!

Connections feature music composed both before and during (and in reaction to) the pandemic and recorded mostly between March 2 and 4, 2021. It includes a generous mix of original compositions with message-driven titles of uplift and instruction (“A New Day,” “Acceptance,” “It Will be Okay,” “Stop Fighting”), balanced with familiar melodies by Whitaker’s musical heroes, from Duke Ellington (“Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”), Stevie Wonder (“Lately”), and gospel singer Richard Smallwood (“Trust Me”), to Duke Pearson (“Jeannine”), Chick Corea (“Spain”), and Thelonious Monk (“Bye-Ya”)—this last one a sparkling, standout duet with pianist Jon Batiste.

The performances on Connections reveal Whitaker’s burgeoning musical identity: one filled with deepening confidence, rhythmic vigor, and a marked melodic clarity. Dramatic entrances have become an aspect of his musical approach. Whether on piano, Hammond organ, Fender Rhodes, or synthesizer, he doesn’t kick off a tune or improvisation as much as plunge into the music, twisting time and navigating structural shifts with fluidity. Relative to past recordings, he now pulls from a noticeably wider palette of modern jazz, Latin, and R&B sounds, still with a heady top-note of gospel—staying true to his roots. Fittingly, Whitaker offers a version of the venerable spiritual “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” as the album’s closing track.

On Connections, Whitaker’s prowess on a wide variety of keyboards is in full effect; “usually we’d go into the studio with whatever backline they have there,” says Whitaker. “But this time I said, ‘we’re gonna bring everything,’ and I was really able to do my thing.” It is clearly a studio effort—evidence of Whitaker’s growing maturity as a recording artist; some tunes were developed during sessions with improvised moments, some were constructed with layered textures and other flavors overdubbed later. Derrick Hodge, noted bassist and bandleader, produced Connections and added his distinctive, textural bass sound to a number of tracks. “Derrick was very active during the recording—that’s what I love about him,” adds Whitaker. “He had some wonderful ideas which really pushed me to experiment more as a composer and arranger. I was hoping he would play bass and after all the tracking was done, he did record on a few tracks.”

Whitaker is buttressed on Connections by an A-level circle of talent that speaks to the pandemic-defying power of community. Many are familiar names in Whitaker’s lineups—guitarist Marcos Robinson, bassists Karim Hutton and Endea Jones, and drummers Isaiah Johnson, Otis Brown III, and Johnathan Blake. Special guests include keyboardist Jon Batiste, violinist Regina Carter, drummer Alvester Garnett, and trumpeter Steve Oquendo—who provided arrangements on, and leads the punchy horn ensemble on “Jeannine.

One of the most distinctive features on Connections is Whitaker’s speaking voice, taken from snippets of interviews and speeches and layered onto a couple of tracks, sharpening the album’s message-giving purpose. “The idea first came about when I was composing ‘Stop Fighting’—I wanted to have spoken words in the beginning,” remembers Whitaker. “Derrick took that idea and said, ‘I think we can have that throughout the entire album.’ So I sent him a bunch of audio files including my talk at a conference a few years ago about myself, with the doctors not having much hope for me, ‘eleven surgeries later…’—all that stuff. If Connections has an overall message, I think one is “Why Not?” Why can’t I do this, or that? Who says this is not possible? The other message of Connections is, this is who I am, now, at this moment when the world is coming back together.”

Connections serves as an impressive reminder of how far Whitaker has come‚ and how he has defied the odds from the outset. He was born in 2001 in Hackensack, New Jersey, premature by three months and blind, fighting his way to health through his earliest years. By age three, he exhibited an unusual musical acuity—picking out nursery rhymes on a toy piano—and by five, blessed with perfect pitch, he began piano lessons at The Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg Music School in New York City where he learned to play and read Braille music as well. To this day, he credits piano teacher Dalia Sakas and the FMDG experience in general for providing him the guidance at the start of his career.

While still a pre-teen, Whitaker started to perform with the band at the New Hope Baptist Church which his family attended. “I really grew up in that church—I first started playing drums while the drummer was on tour, and when the organist would show up late, I would fill in for him. Then our pastor at the time said, “Matthew you’re the organist’ and I’ve been the organist there for five years now. We’re online every Sunday with live streams now.”

Whitaker’s childhood transformed the word “premature” into a term of strength and accomplishment. He continued his studies at the Harlem School of the Arts and with Montlclair, NJ’s Jazz House Kids program through his adolescent years, and word of this talented child began to spread. At the age of 9, he enrolled in the Manhattan School of Music’s Pre-College Jazz program with support from the Jazz Foundation of America. A year later, he was chosen to perform as the opener for Stevie Wonder’s induction into the Apollo Theater’s Hall of Fame. At the age of 12, he was the subject of Thrive, a mini-documentary focused on his uncanny talent and brief journey so far. By 13, he became the youngest player ever endorsed by Hammond USA, manufacturers of the organ he had begun to play only four years before; at 15, he became an official Yamaha Artist, becoming the youngest musician to join that elite group of pianists.

By his early teenage years, with jazz as his primary focus and an ear open to a number of styles—from deep, African American roots to modern classical and even hard rock—Whitaker was leading his own bands and developing a sound that often called upon the energy and spirit of his Baptist upbringing. In 2016, he performed Stevie Wonder’s classic “I Wish” on FOX TV’s Showtime at the Apollo, and in early 2017, he released his debut album Outta The Box on the Jazz Foundation’s own label. It received wide critical acclaim, inside and far beyond the jazz world. One critic praised how the recording “showcases his vast influences and range” and labeled him “a prominent young voice in today’s jazz scene.”

With comet-like velocity, Whitaker’s musical growth continued as his star ascended. From 2017 through 2018, he headlined major theaters and music festivals with a tight, energetic group. He performed publicly with a dizzying array of top talent from Ray Chew, Christian McBride, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Rhoda Scott, Regina Carter and Jason Moran, to Jon Batiste, Cory Henry, Marc Cary, Arturo O’Farrill, James Carter, Roy Ayers, and even The New York Pops Orchestra. He appeared on the Today Show,  Ellen Degeneres Show and the Harry Connick, Jr. Show.

In 2019, Whitaker released his sophomore album—Now Hear This—on the independent label Resilience Music AllianceDownbeat awarded it four stars, calling his “spirit-raising ecstasy…a perfect launchpad for all that’s yet to come from this exceptional pianist.” CBS’s 60 Minutes program decided to report on Whitaker, shooting him at a headlining gig at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and consulting a neuroscientist who used an MRI to examine his brain activity and better understand his prodigious skills. The story aired nationwide in December 2020 in the midst of a global music industry lockdown brought on by the COVID pandemic.

n early 2021, as the world neared one full year of lockdown, the decision was made to return to the studio; Connections is an album made possible by, and in defiance of all that this pandemic has engendered. “For me, life has always been about rising to challenges,” Whitaker says.

One thing I take away from this lockdown is don’t be afraid to keep developing as a person and still be creating, even if you’re by yourself. I’m grateful that I have the resources available to do my thing even from home. We’ve been doing live streams from home and from church. I’ve also had a long time to think about so much going on in politics and protests and the world. I’ve learned to let the music speak—that goes with everything that I play. Let the music speak and you can hear it tell you how to think about this topic or another. That’s really what Connections is about.

At your leisure, check out the impressive “CONNECTIONS” by pianist Matthew Whitaker