Guitarist Matthew Stevens—known for his work with Esperanza Spalding, Terri Lyne Carrington’s Social Science, and the In Common collective, among others—has pulled a wild card out of his pack: a solo acoustic album. Titled Pittsburgh, the album is due out October 1 on Whirlwind Recordings, and JazzTimes is honored to premiere the video for one of its tracks, “Blue Blues,” featuring animation by the visual artist Harifa.
“Blue Blues,” despite its title, isn’t a blues at all, but a drone-oriented piece rooted in a driving ostinato, spawning free-range improvisation that suggests a polytonal Tommy Emmanuel or a slightly disturbed Leo Kottke. And it’s just a taster for the 10 other tracks and multiple moods that make up Pittsburgh.
Stevens’ debut as a solo acoustic artist came about because of two major events: the COVID-19 pandemic and a fractured elbow. The former led him to hunker down in his wife’s family’s hometown of Pittsburgh (thus the album title) with a vintage Martin 00-17 acoustic guitar, which inspired many short song ideas. The latter happened on an ill-fated bike ride in the rain, and it could have put Stevens out of commission, musically speaking, for months. But instead, the song sketches he’d recently come up with on the Martin kept him going. “Playing this music became a big part of my rehab,” he says. “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.”
Once Stevens’ elbow was fully healed, it had become clear that recording an album of these solo compositions was the next logical step. And that’s Pittsburgh: two hands, one acoustic guitar, two Neumann U89 mics, and a wealth of ideas generated in isolation and perfected through hard, sometimes painful work.
As for the video seen here, Stevens comments, “Harifa and I met through a mutual friend and first worked together on a video for my band Sixty (with Eric Doob and Corey King). We hit it off and have continued to collaborate ever since. I love her animations and colorful aesthetic and enjoy seeing the music represented in a different medium. She has equal agency and ownership over the work and we’ve developed a short hand where I send her only the song and she creates a video based on her interpretation of that alone.” You can find out more about Harifa and see some of her work here.
For more information on Matthew Stevens, visit his website.