New York City-based guitarist and composer Matthew Stevens is considered one of the most promising artists in jazz today through his associations with NEXT Collective, Christian Scott, Esperanza Spalding, Terri Lyne Carrington, Walter Smith III, and Harvey Mason.
Now Stevens comes fully into his own with his debut recording as a leader, Woodwork. (Exclusive “Mastered for iTunes” release February 24; physical release available May 26.) The album showcases the diverse influences on Stevens, his warm, robust sound, and his fluid, emotive playing at the helm of a stellar quintet. He’s joined by pianist and fellow NEXT Collective member Gerald Clayton, bassist Vicente Archer, drummer Eric Doob, and percussionist Paulo Stagnaro.
The album’s title, Stevens says, reflects the almost tactile way in which he creates music. “It’s a metaphor for how I see myself interacting with sound. Woodwork is an act of creation in collaboration with the natural world; it evokes 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.”
In Woodwork, Stevens places the sound of the guitar front and center, achieving a full-bodied resonance that captures the immersive feeling of a live concert experience. “When you listen to a saxophone or a trumpet on a record, you often feel like you’re right there in the room,” Stevens explains. “I miss that on the guitar. As a guitarist, your touch and articulation contribute hugely to your identity as an instrumentalist, so if you have none of that air in the sound, you lose a lot of nuance. I put a microphone in front of my guitar as well as the amp so it doesn’t just feel in your face, but like the music is alive and moving around the room.”
A self-described guitar fanatic who fell in love with his father’s Jimi Hendrix records as a child, Stevens purposely assembled his band to allow the guitar to express his melodies alone. His strings shimmer over percussive interplay on opener “Ashes (One),” then weave a hypnotic groove on “Star L.A.” They sing the folk-inspired melody of the title track “Woodwork” and roar on the album’s driving composition “Uptown Dance Party.”
The elusive “Sunday” continues the genre-bridging mission of the NEXT Collective with a haunting David Bowie cover, while “Blasted” pays homage to Wayne Shorter with its churning, circular melody. Stevens was recently invited by musical director Terri Lyne Carrington to perform at a fundraiser for the upcoming documentary Wayne Shorter: Zero Gravity alongside an all-star lineup including Shorter, Hancock, Spalding, Marcus Miller, Lalah Hathaway, Corrine Bailey Rae, Lizz Wright and Dee Dee Bridgewater.
Stevens possesses a rare ability to marry singable melodies with cerebral complexity, as on the tense, shifting “Sequel” or the knotty “Grown Ups.” A through-composed duo for guitar and piano, “Gently” mesmerizingly interlaces the expressive lines of Stevens and Clayton.
“Brothers,” performed as a trio with Archer and Doob, embraces the sound of the acoustic guitar, from the blossoming resonance to the scrape of fingers on strings. Much of the album was recorded at the Clubhouse Studio in Rhinebeck, New York, which just happens to own an early-70s Lowden formerly favored by late folk legend Pete Seeger, and played reverently by Stevens on this song.
A Toronto native, Stevens began taking piano lessons as a child and switched to guitar after a few years. In middle school he joined a local rock band that played original songs as well as popular hits by bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden. He spent several summers at the University of Toronto’s jazz camp, studying with Lorne Lofsky and ultimately moved to the United States on a scholarship to Berklee College of Music.
Immediately after college, Stevens joined Christian Scott’s band, ultimately recording five albums with the heralded trumpeter. He’s since toured extensively in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Asia, South Africa, and South America, performing at leading national and international jazz festivals, including Montreux, North Sea, Newport, Montreal, Monterey, Fujitsu, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage, and at renowned venues such as the Hollywood Bowl, the Kennedy Center, the Blue Note clubs in New York, Tokyo and Milan, and the Moscow International Music House. He’s also a member of the adjunct faculty at the New School and has taught workshops at the Maryland Summer Jazz Workshop, USC, and Berklee.
Over the past year, Stevens has been featured on recordings by drum legend Harvey Mason, saxophonist Walter Smith III, and pianist Justin Kauflin, whose CD was produced by Quincy Jones in conjunction with Keep On Keepin’ On, the new documentary about the relationship between Kauflin and his mentor, Clark Terry. He’s also toured regularly with drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and bassist Esperanza Spalding, and will appear on Spalding’s next recording, produced by David Bowie’s longtime producer Tony Visconti.
In 2015, Stevens has plans to tour with Carrington, Spalding, bassist Ben Williams, and his own band, which Woodwork establishes as a group to watch closely. “Collectively we were able to tap into what we all think is important musically,” Stevens says. “In my own experience there’s nothing that feels more exciting than that.”