It’s always tempting to add a qualifier when listening to a prodigy: we say he is good “for his age.” True, Matthew Whitaker is only 18, and he’s also blind, but the musicianship, arrangements, and bandleading skills displayed here would be equally impressive were this album made by someone with five times the experience. Moving from piano to Hammond B-3 to electronic keyboards, Whitaker consistently displays a sophisticated insight and a refined sense of dynamics and touch. On both his original compositions and the covers he includes—among them tracks by Ahmad Jamal, Charlie Parker, Billy Strayhorn, and the pop team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil—Whitaker puts a personal stamp on the music.
He’s got some ace helpers with him, bassist Yunior Terry and drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. Among the guests: Dave Stryker’s guitar brightens up four of the tracks; he’s particularly steamy on Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance,” given a solid soul-jazz treatment that allows Whitaker to flex on the B-3.
Percussionist Sammy Figueroa, flutist Gabrielle Garo, and keyboardist Marc Cary, adding Fender Rhodes to a track, also turn up. But there’s no denying that Whitaker is the dominant force here, and his own tunes are among the album’s best. The bossa nova-tinged “Miss Michelle” glides smoothly and features smart tradeoffs between Whitaker’s piano and Stryker’s guitar, and the tempo changes of “Underground” are handled with precision and grace. Keep a close watch on this talented newcomer.
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