A few different strands need to come together to explain jazz guitarist Matthew Stevens’ new solo acoustic album Pittsburgh, but — despite his background — the whole thing might have hinged on a broken elbow, usually not a boon to a guitarist (or anyone). The album came from more than just an accident, though, as it builds on a narrative that makes the album, if certainly not inevitable, at least not a lucky break.
Stevens picked up the guitar when he was young, and he was playing in high school bands when a friend’s father suggested he give Miles Davis a try, and he was hooked. “I took it to the guitar teacher at the local shop and said, ‘What is this? How do you play this music?'” Stevens said, adding that he was “quickly in way over my head.”
“I was drawn to [jazz] for both the sound of the music and because it felt so impenetrable to me. There was this unbelievable challenge, not only physically as a guitar player but wrapping my ear around it,” he said. “It revealed the depth … It shook me out of this idea that music was major chords and minor chords. It exposed the depth of the medium to me at a young age. I grew to love it as I tried to play it.”
Stevens was moving away from “Purple Haze” and Soundgarden, but what really helped solidify his interest was the strong jazz guitar tradition in his hometown of Toronto. While he doesn’t see himself as fitting into that lineage of guys like Ed Bickert and Lenny Breau, going to shows was “an unbelievable resource” for the young artist.
After working with artists like Esperanza Spalding, Terri Lyne Carrington, and Dave Douglas. Stevens might be someone no longer in over his head, but his enthusiasm for pushing into difficult places remains apparent.
“It’s an ongoing challenge that drives me,” he explained. “It’s those small incremental advances that really sustain a lot of us. It’s knowing there’s always another piece to be peeled back … this neverending well of potential discovery, of the music itself and also of yourself, of self-actualization via music. It’s those moments when something clicks when you play something that you feel like is new in your vocabulary or you surprise yourself. It’s all those things, those intangible qualities, that are so exciting and are always being chased.”
In that chase, Stevens connected with Spalding and began working with her around 2014 or 2015 on her Emily’s D+Evolution album. “I felt from her this fearless abandon in terms of what she was willing to try on her own albums, and I found that really inspiring,” Stevens said. “I was really inspired by that and it made me think how I oftentimes felt I was bringing my most risk-taking and most creative spirit to other people’s albums more so than I was my own, and I’ve thought about that more over the years. Maybe there’s something about it being easier to be vulnerable when it’s not your name on the cover when the buck doesn’t stop with you.”
Stevens compared it to a blackjack player playing with someone else’s money, where he wouldn’t have to bring in “all these neuroses” and could have “a more clear-minded approach.” Working on other people’s music, he’d been more able to be in the moment and enjoy the process without worrying as much about the ultimate outcome.
He’s been trying, though, to bring that spirit to his own recordings, starting with 2017’s Preverbal. “Over time,” he said, “the beginning of that is in part attributable to working on those last few Esperanza records and being given such a long leash and so much collaborative input, where I could really explore that part of myself.”
With that musical and attitudinal foundation, Stevens found himself locked down last fall and “bored of just practicing for the sake of practicing” without opportunities to perform. He started writing short pieces to work on as if he were rehearsing for a concert.
When New York’s the Jazz Gallery asked him to do a show for their Lockdown Sessions, he “wasn’t feeling particularly inspired to throw his hat into the ring with a split-screen collaboration.” He decided to do a few of these solo songs, and when his friend mastered the recording, he pointed out that it sounded good and suggested that it could be a record.
Around this time, Stevens took a bike ride in the rain, crashed, and fractured the outer radial in his right arm (his picking arm). His aunt was helping him with physical therapy over Zoom and suggested that if he could play, he should, even while he couldn’t pick up a shopping bag or extend his arm.
“I can be pretty high-strung in terms of how I practice,” Stevens laughed. “You have to be a little bit crazy to do this. The first thing I was doing was playing all these Bach partitas. Can I play these as fast as I could before I broke my elbow? I thought this is going to drive me totally insane, but I really want to play.”
Instead of forcing a “technical recovery by ripping scales,” Stevens saw “an opportunity to continue with” the solo music he’d been working on. That work was “demanding musically speaking”, but wasn’t a matter of playing at top speed. He could work with “slow and deliberate movements” and repetition, and the process became “almost meditative”.
“It was the perfect thing to do. It saved me from spinning out,” Stevens said. “I could have been pulled in a lot of directions, but it eliminated the question of: ‘What am I going to do to get physically better today?’ I know what I need to practice. Just practice this thing. I can take it as slowly and gradually as I want to.”
The composition process through this time remained similar for Stevens in some ways. “The goal for me is I love that music that sounds surprising but inevitable at the same time,” he explained. “That thing is in my mind always and omnipresent.”
He did see a shift in his process, though. Where he usually would “follow my ear” or find “a melody idea” and then “chase it down and wrangle it”, these new songs came from a different place.
“The seeds of these songs were often centered around something guitaristic,” he said. “Maybe the interplay between two contrapuntal voices, or centered around this sequence of chords, but when the guitar’s capoed on the seventh fret… A lot of them have an inherent guitaristic idea behind them. My idea with them was to take that one thing and try to turn it inside out, upside-down, whatever I could.
“I was teaching at Peabody, and I was always saying to my students, ‘You’re just moving off this material too fast.’ I was always talking about ringing every drop out of the idea that you already had. I was trying to take as many cues and as much information from the initial phrases and ideas of these pieces and extrapolate from that place. I was trying to state an idea and have as many expositions of that idea as possible.
“Because 80% of the writing of those songs came after I’d broken my elbow, they were written on the guitar and what I was able or unable to do at any given point was baked into those, but it got murky … I never was aware of [physical limitations] — it blended into one thing, just what I was hearing.”
Asked for examples of this “guitaristic” thinking, Stevens explains a few of his ideas. In opener “Ambler, he used an alternated tuning and then matched the beginning arpeggiated part with a melody on the high strings. “Purpose” uses a mandolin sort of sound to unique effect. “Baroque” uses two voices, but they are “moving independently from one another. It grew out of playing a note and playing another note without releasing the previous note.” Other tracks build on contrapuntal movement or, oddly (except maybe some Toronto is seeping in after all), a feeling like a Feist song.
To put one more piece into the puzzle, when the pandemic began, Stevens and his family moved from Manhattan to Pittsburgh, where his wife’s family is from (“From who knows how? 200 years or something like that.”) and rented a place just down from Stevens’ mother-in-law. They’ve been able to travel back and forth, but they “hit the lottery” not only by being near family but with the people they ended up bubbling with.
Living in Pittsburgh influenced Stevens’ art “absolutely, in a number of ways,” from the space itself to the area’s history.
“Over the years, before the pandemic, I’d spent a lot of time here,” Stevens explained. “What people think about it is not what it is, even topographically. People are always like, ‘What do you mean there’s a ton of hills, and it’s lush?’ There’s an element of being geographically in a place for an extended period of time that’s going to have an effect on you. It can’t not. There’s the osmosis factor.”
But Stevens wasn’t just affected by the physical landscape. “I’m keenly aware of the jazz history in this town,” he continued. “The cover is a Teenie Harris photo that I licensed from the Carnegie Museum. That was very inspiring to me, and at the forefront of my mind, in terms of recognizing the place, I’m in [and] the caliber of musician that this city has laid claim to the past 100-plus years. I’m incredibly inspired by that.
“A close friend of mine opened up two clubs here called Con Alma, and he’s doing work amazing work reminding people of that [history]. I felt lucky to be geographically in the place that we were and to have the comfort that we have. And also to walk around and go, ‘Oh, shit there’s a plaque celebrating Mary Lou Williams.’ You take that home with you, and it goes into your practice. All those things make for something that may not have happened had we not been here, so I want to point to that and honor that with the music, the title, and the photo for the cover.”
More practically, Stevens has benefited from meeting a great engineer named Jay Dudt, who teaches at Duquesne and is the chief recording engineer at the Manchester Craftmen’s Guild. “His expertise contributes to the totality of the thing,” Stevens said.
So combining multiple bits of geography, exciting work in the industry, a lockdown, and a broken leads Stevens in some way to his remarkable new album Pittsburgh. With so much coming together, it can be hard to imagine where to go next.
“I’m figuring that out,” he said. “I feel like there’s something, although maybe I was aware of it in theory, but I’m just experiencing it for the first time. There’s an enormous amount to be gained from solo performance, not just practicing but playing. I feel like — at the risk of sounding selfish — I’ve gotten to know myself better. As we get to know ourselves better, hopefully, we become more potent at that thing.
“There’s been an enormous amount of growth for me just personally. Honestly, this was not something that I had anticipated doing or really felt like I’d have even be able to do. In my mind, I would have shied away from this as an impossibly tall order. It’s confidence-inspiring for me in that regard to have set what halfway felt like an impossible goal and just to do the thing. That in itself is just something I couldn’t have anticipated and will propel me into whatever I do next.”
As Stevens returns to regular band work, he considers how on future records he’ll work on playing new songs unaccompanied “to get inside of what the music is and could be.”
“When you play these things alone, it becomes clear to you what works dynamically and what works pacing-wise and in all these fundamental musical ways,” he said. “Because you’re not relying on anyone else to imbue any of the sauce or nuance that makes music music, you learn a lot about the songs themselves and what they could be.”
He expects to do another solo album at some point, too. He’s just done the first concert featuring some of this music, and he’s thinking about how he could interpret them differently and how he could work in other songs. “It just feels like out of nowhere, an unexpectedly important part of my identity all of a sudden. It’s really weird,” he said. “It gives so much back, just personally, making that kind of investment in your musical bank, from an artistic perspective. It would be foolish not to do more of that.”
Stevens continues that early and ongoing quest to get in over his head and seek new challenges. In the process that led to Pittsburgh, he’s found even more resources to draw on, and new possibilities have opened up, and he’s excited to go as deep as he can.
“What’s better than that?” he said. “Surprising ourselves, growing, and doing the things that we feel like are out of our ability? It inevitably makes you hungry for more. It’s such an exciting part about being a person, and a person with a passion to do something.”