Matthew Stevens - Preverbal
(Ropeadope Music. CD review by Rob Mallows)
Under-promise and over-deliver. It’s a business truism that's equally pertinent to the music world. If you’re going to make big claims for an album, make sure you see them through. Young U.S. guitarist Matthew Stevens’ new album promised much. And it almost delivers. But not quite.
Preverbal is a perfectly good album from a fine young "shape-shifting" guitarist and there’s plenty to enjoy in its slow-paced musings, haunting chords and solid accompaniment from Stevens and band, drummer Eric Doob and bassist Vicente Archer. But what I didn't hear on this album was evidence of the next bold evolutionary stage in guitar music that the accompanying PR up-puffery suggested.
In a week when Larry Coryell’s death reminded us of what top artists can achieve, scaling the rock face of jazz guitar to reach the summit of greatness remains a challenge for any guitarist and it’s clear that Stevens has chosen to make his ascent on one of the trickier paths. He may eventually make it, but not necessarily with this record.
That being said, Preverbal has a certain spikiness to it and, while not stunningly original, the compositions show a readiness by Stevens to look beyond much of what constitutes the usual in guitar-based jazz and jazz-rock.
Opener Picture Window is low key to the point of insipid, only given some oomph from the sound manipulation and studio craft which highlights the importance of the sound engineer to modern jazz recordings. Second track Sparkle And Fade achieves the former but is also true to form on the second - there are some interesting elements but not much in the way of visceral sounds to sustain listener interest. The opening tracks of any album should grab the listener’s ear and draw them in. These weren’t the right tracks to do that. Third track Undertow, with it’s pep and vigour, is a more obvious opener.
Track five Reservoir has a trippy drum rhythm and loping bass from Archer which create a pleasingly simple sound, more base metal than complex alloy. Sixth track Knowhow is the album’s most discordant and irregular one which sounds at first more experimental sound-scaping than jazz, but explodes into a rather charming repeated pattern from Stevens which develops into a stimulating track.
The credit for Esperanza Spalding on final track Our Reunion will attract attention and is no doubt a well-deserved thank you to Stevens for his role in directing the sound of her most recent album. This track is the most distinctive on the album with some sweet chord shifts over which la Spalding provides a gossamer thin, whispy and eerily atmospheric vocal as a prelude to a distinctly rocky second half.
This album is likely a grower. It doesn’t immediately offer up a wow factor, but further listens confirm there’s good stuff in there.