Matthew Stevens keeps high-class company. His list of employers includes Terri Lyne Carrington, Esperanza Spalding, and Linda May Han Oh. He also makes strong records of his own, like Preverbal and In Common (in two volumes). Like many jazz guitarists, he started in rock. The sophisticated jazz improvisations on Preverbal contain occasional heavy metal death-vamps, reminders of his origins.
Pittsburgh is surprising: an acoustic solo album. The backstory is that in September of 2020 Stevens was sheltering in place in Pittsburgh. The constraints of lockdown were challenging even before he broke his elbow in a bicycle accident. Partly as physical therapy, he began to do his practicing on a vintage Martin small-body acoustic guitar. He created some sketches that became 11 short compositions. This 32-minute recital, recorded in a Pittsburgh studio, is the result.
Given the challenging circumstances of the recording and Stevens’ exceptional technical facility, Pittsburgh is easy to admire. Most songs are complex structures of countermelodies, arpeggios, calls and responses, and rhythm lines. Stevens is fast enough, on this album without overdubs, to play duets with himself.
But Pittsburgh is not easy to love. Stevens’ pieces often sound more like exercises than songs. All his agitation rarely culminates in memorable melody. Even introspective pieces like “Ending Is Beginning” and “Miserere,” while they do suggest a rapt mood, fail to achieve many moments of actual lyricism.
Other guitarists who have made an impact with their solo projects, like Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell, are more finished composers and more willing to explore rich repertoire from outside sources (Americana and popular music). Stevens’ choice to record only his own tunes is self-limiting. Pittsburgh may appeal to guitarists and guitar junkies, but it will be a minor footnote in his discography.
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