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Matthew Stevens: Preverbal (Ropeadope)

Review of new album from innovative guitarist

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Cover of Matthew Stevens album Preverbial
Cover of Matthew Stevens album Preverbal

Preverbal is a new installment in the immense, frequently compromised, sometimes rich, undeniably tortured 50-year history of fusion. More to the point, it is one of the most successful installments in recent memory.

Like many, perhaps most, jazz musicians under 40, Matthew Stevens started in music playing rock. In his youth, his home was Toronto but his epicenter was Seattle. He loved Nirvana and Soundgarden. He eventually became the guitarist in high-profile jazz bands (Christian Scott, NEXT Collective, Esperanza Spalding). For his second album as a leader he revisits his origins. The rock in Stevens’ jazz-rock fusion is manifest in the head-banging beats of “Reservoir,” the basic pop-song line of “Picture Window” and the guitar death-vamp on “Undertow.” Rock, above all, is an attitude. Stevens’ complex intellectual jazz improvisations occur within loud, belligerent, visceral raunch. The juxtaposition of two attitudes toward art is exciting. (Wasn’t that what fusion was supposed to be?)

The way this music evolves is continuously revelatory. Stadium-rock anthems with stinging guitar and barbaric drums (by Eric Doob) contain surprising melodies. All the din comes from only three players. Stevens and Doob also operate synthesizers. Vicente Archer generates huge groundswells with his bass alone. Stevens’ arranged soundscapes feel spontaneous, unfolding in the moment as looming forces, as oceanic seethings, perhaps even as specific single-note guitar lyricism (like on “Cocoon”).

One of the remarkable achievements of Preverbal is how all the in-studio production culminates in a clean mix that is vivid with detail and never sounds cluttered. In fact, this beautifully recorded album is a celebration of sound, of the vast seductive sonorities of the electric guitar, especially when enhanced by modern technology. Stevens sounds like he is playing a thousand guitars.

One quibble: Esperanza Spalding’s final vocal track interrupts the album’s aesthetic wholeness.

Preview, buy or download songs from the album Preverbal by Matthew Steven on iTunes.

Originally Published