Matthew Stevens Talks Of Woodwork & His Love Of Improvisation
Some of the world’s greatest musicians have made the move to NYC to hone their craft and share their talents with the masses. One of which is New York-based Matthew Stevens, a young and talented jazz guitarist who made the move from Toronto not too long ago.
Stevens recently released his debut album Woodwork, which showcases his uniquely robust sound alongside a quintet of talented musicians, including Grammy-nominated pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist and longtime member of the Robert Glasper Trio Vicente Archer, Grammy-nominated drummer Eric Doob and Grammy-winning percussionist Paulo Stagnaro.
Brooklyn Radio’s Lara Gamble spoke with Stevens last month about his migration to the U.S. and how being a jazz musician doesn’t necessarily mean he only listens to jazz music.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Toronto, actually.
How did you end up in New York?
I got a scholarship to go to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. So, basically, I wasn’t intending to move to the States, and then I got a scholarship to go there. And so I went down there when I was eighteen, and basically, after school, I made the migration down to New York with a lot of classmates and stuff. Every graduating year in school at Berklee, there’s always, I think, about two hundred people that go to New York. So, I just went from Boston to New York and stayed. That’s where my friends were. That’s where the people I was playing with were. And so, it was the obvious decision, you know.
When and how were you introduced to music?
Well, my mother has taught at the National Ballet School in Toronto, which is one of the most prestigious ballet schools in the whole world. She’s been there over forty years at this point. And so, as a dance teacher, there’s lots and lots and lots of music around the house. And my dad played guitar and sang around the house and stuff, and I took piano lessons down the street with my best bud’s mother. It was just always around.
My uncle was, and still is, an actor and sort of put out records on the side for fun. So, it’s always been around. And I was playing piano from a really, really young age. A lot of people of my generation wanted to play the guitar because that was the instrument, which was the focus of all the bands that I liked at the time.
When did you decide to make music a full-time gig?
It just sort of happened. It wasn’t a conscious decision. This is a question that has come up before. I think it’s actually kind of interesting. It wasn’t a decision that I had to make, and I think it’s a lot to do with the fact that I was never told that it was a stupid decision by my parents. So, I didn’t face a lot of naysaying or a lot of like, “Are you sure you want to do this for the rest of your life?” from anyone. I was so in love with it, and my parents were just like, “Yeah, okay. Cool. Go ahead.”
It’s something that I’ve thought about lately. Nobody ever does anything on their own, you know. You’re always a product of your environment and of the people that bring you up and of your friends and your family, and whether you sort of realize it or not, it shapes so much of, not just who you are as a person, but what you end up doing and how you’re able to do it.
So, I was just really lucky in that way to have encouraging parents who never told me that it was a bad idea and also didn’t try to scare the shit out of me and say, “This is not something that you want to do. You’re going to have a miserable life.” It just sort of always felt viable to me, you know? And I think because of that, I just sort of had the ignorance and audacity to just kind of like go straight forward with it and be like, “Oh, it will be fine!” And, you know, it has been luckily. Knock on wood. I need to find some wood.
There was never like a crossroads. There was never a point in my life where I had to be like, “Okay, you know what? I’m either going to go into biochemistry or political science or I’m going to take this wild gamble and go into music.” It was never like that.
Why did you gravitate towards jazz?
Well, it was something that a group of friends that I had were listening to. It wasn’t so much that I was into jazz. I was just really into the idea of improvising. I was way into Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan and lots of guitar players like that who my dad loved. And a huge part of what made them so exciting to me was that they were improvising.
It wasn’t about it being an idiom. It was sort of a discovery of like, “Oh, man. I can just play what I’m feeling in the moment and make some stuff up.” Connecting the dots that way was just like so exciting to me. Through being introduced to just the notion and possibility of improvising in a band, it sort of naturally led me to jazz, I suppose, or music where improvising is a huge focus and really the central component of the music.
Who would you list as early influences on your sound?
I’ll just give you all of them. I was way into Jimi Hendrix. I was way into Stevie Ray Vaughan. I was way into Jim Hall, Grant Green, and then, I listened to a lot of Scofield, Path Metheny and Bill Frazel. Those guys are often referred to as the “Big Three.” They’re all Baby Boomers, but they all have radically different styles of playing, and they’re all hugely influential and unbelievable composers and guitarists and sort of creators of musical worlds that are very much doing their own thing.
So, all of those guitarists were really big influences on me. And then also guys like Mike McCready and Stone Gossard from Pearl Jam and Kurt Cobain and people that were in bands…Kim Thayil from Soundgarden, stuff that was really popular when I was young and that I really think actually holds water now.
So, you play jazz, but what do you listen to outside of jazz?
Yeah, honestly, I don’t think of it…I mean, I understand the sort of the natural reaction is when people hear the music that me and a lot my peers make, that’s the first place that their head goes. I think that, I mean, I only speak for myself, but I think that really people aren’t thinking really idiomatically anymore. And to me, the music that I get most excited about, the stuff that doesn’t fit sort of tidily and contently within one genre. But it also doesn’t heavy-handed and kind of clumsily try to take two disparate styles of music and just kind of shove them together.
It’s the music that sort of exists in the cracks, you know, where people really personally and elegantly and magically just take all of these disparate musical influences that have been part of their own growing up and life experience and put them together into something really personal.
So, there’s really not a disconnect between me being like, “Ah, man. I love that Daniel Lanois record that he did with Black Dove, and I love that Bon Iver record. And I love the Stars record, and I love this new Kendrick Lamar record or whatever.” And then being like, “But I play jazz.” And so, there’s what I listen to, and then there’s what I do. That disconnect doesn’t exist for me. And really, I try to bring all that stuff to what it is that I do very honestly.
I’m doing this really interesting new project right now. This year, I’ve been focusing on this record Woodwork and touring this record and getting it out there. We’re just starting to tour with it now. You know the singer Esperanza Spalding? She’s pretty well-known. She’s made a lot of great records, and she became more of a household name when she won a “Best New Artist” Grammy maybe in 2012 or something. It was the year when Justin Bieber was around, and she won.
Anyways, she’s an unbelievable jazz musician, and basically, we’re doing a new project we’re touring now, and it’s a lot more sort of like rock-focused and power trio-focused, and Tony Visconti, David Bowie’s longtime producer, co-produced the record, and it sort of has a really different thrust. And if you heard it, you would be like, “Oh, this just sounds like cool pop/rock/soul/funk stuff.” She has a really interesting way of writing songs.
But I think that just our background as improvisers, more so than jazz musicians, really informs the music and how we approach it. So, I think that just being an improviser and a flexible creative musician is kind of like the spirit that I want to bring to whatever situation I’m playing in, you know?
Mhm, makes sense. When did you start working on your debut album Woodwork?
We started touring a lot of that material in 2013 into early 2014. It was great. We went to Europe a few times and toured quite a bit in the U.S. A lot of the material was sort of fleshed out and rearranged and re-thought out during that period. And so, by the time that we went in to record it last May, we really had a very clear idea of what it was going to sound like, how we wanted it to sound, how everybody fit into the band, what everybody’s role was, and it was just a matter of getting the best take for those individual songs and just getting the most out of each piece.
Actually, it was one of those really cool recording sessions. We went to a great studio called The Clubhouse upstate. We got everybody out of New York City, which was really nice and stayed at the studio. They have a nice little guesthouse. It was just a good feeling amongst everybody. It was a beautiful few days in May. The weather was great. It just went very smoothly. And I feel really proud of that album in that, a lot of time, and I’ve been part of a bazillion things like this where you’ll perform the material many, many, many times to various degrees of success, and then you’ll go into the studio and you’ll kind of get somewhere in the middle where like some songs will be a good version of something and then something else will be close to it but not quite. And you’re going, “Ah, man. If it could have just kind of gotten somewhere close to how we get it live.” And that’s often the feeling that people have.
But with this recording, for whatever reason, just because of whatever was in the air on that weekend, I really feel like the recorded versions of these songs are some of the best versions of them that were ever played by the band, which is very strange to say because it’s very rare that that happens. And it’s not to anybody’s individual credit. It just kind of happened that way because of the fact that there is a lot of improvising happening.
If you’re really taking chances and going for it, a lot is left up to, not to chance, but I mean, there are gonna be distinctly more successful performances and iterations of songs than other times, you know? So, to have some of what I feel is the band’s best performances of that material on record is just kind of like hitting the jackpot or something.
So, the album is due for release at the end of this month on Whirlwind Recordings. What are your hopes for the record?
My hope for the record is really just that people hear it and that is sort of proliferates and it gets on people’s radar and they feel inclined to check it out. I think we’re all really proud of it and just are really eager to share it with people. And so, more than anything, I hope that people just get to hear the music and hear where it is that we’re coming from.
What’s next for you?
So, we’re touring that this month and then in the summer, I’m going to be out on the road a lot doing two long U.S. tours with Esperanza Spalding and her new project, which is called Esperanza Spalding Presents: Emily D+Evolution. That’s a really exciting project. We’re going to be going all across the U.S. this summer.
The first date of the summer tour that we’re doing is at Celebrate Brooklyn at the Prospect Park Bandshell on the 12th of June. So, that’ll be fun. We’re excited about that. I’ll be touring Woodwork as much as I can this year and then a lot more in Europe next year. It’s not supposed to come out in Europe until the end of October into early November.
Do you have anything else that you want to add or promote?
Just the dates for the tour. That’s sort of what we’re pumping. Also, there’s a new video premiere that we just put out to Wax Poetics of a song called “Processional,” which is really cool. That was great. We also got the DownBeat Editors’ Pick for the month of May, which is also really exciting. You can find us on Facebook at facebook.com/MatthewStevensGroup and on Twitter @mtwstevens.