REVIEW: Matthew Stevens: Preverbal at Ronnie Scott’s (2017 EFG LJF)

Matthew Stevens
Photo from artist website

Matthew Stevens: Preverbal
(Ronnie Scott’s, 12 November 2017. EFG LJF. Review by Rob Mallows)


The preverbal stages of development are the phases before infants say their first meaningful words. Vocalisations, murmurs, eye movements, gazes are used to share ideas that cannot yet be expressed in language. It is communication of complex ideas through subtle gesture and implication.

I can see why Canadian guitarist Matthew Stevens (supported by an audience about one fifth Canuck) chose that name for his album (REVIEWED HERE) which was the basis of this show on day three of the EFG London Jazz Festival.

This was preverbal music. Indirect, yet forthright in its indirectness. Simple, but simplicity communicated in a complex mode. Full of expression and power, but also muted. Without seeming to do a lot, Matthew Stevens said a great deal over an hour and a half of deeply intense playing.

Backed by Zach Brown on electric bass and Eric Doob on drums and electronics, Stevens presented a compelling mix of jazz, prog rock, trance and psychedelia. Labels don’t pin easily to this music, however.

Stevens’ style is scratchy and staccato: he’s less a speed freak, more a sculptor. His technique is superb and he was able to stretch his contorted fretting hand to reach some painfully acute but haunting chords on opening track Picture Window, a track which gave new meaning to the phrase slow burn. A single repetitive phrase was repeatedly plucked by Stevens, going through a series of jaw-droppingly complex chord choices before exploding into the main riff as everything came to a head as the bass and drum picked up the heavy lifting.

Stevens and drummer Doob both made extensive use of sequencers and computer backing tracks to add subtle layers of colour which melded beautifully well, but technology can have its downside. Halfway through, a software glitch led to intense speaker crackle for ten minutes. But it was forgivable; the effects and beats helped make Stevens' guitar sing and wail so expressively.

Stevens played with an intensity I haven’t seen in a while. His demeanour was the same whether notes were pouring out of his guitar like coins from a jackpot-winning slot machine or the room was silent save for the slightest of drum beats and a whisper-think pluck on the strings. The audience experienced the full gamut of guitar emotions.

In style, Stevens is perhaps the Mike Stern for the iPhone generation (he also uses a Telecaster guitar) shot through the prism of software and an effects deck like one might find in an Airbus cockpit. The similarities don’t end there. Eric Doob’s style of drumming - a super display of controlled aggression, like a V8 BMW engine - reminded me of Stern’s band drummer, Dave Weckl, even down to sharing a subtle physical resemblance.

A track like Reservoir highlighted Doob’s importance to the overall success of the show, where he combined propulsive drumming with the most subtle tip-tap accents on the ride cymbals and snare.

This show was also the very epitome of contemporary jazz staging and styling. There were as many computers and effects pads as there were actual instruments. The interaction with the audience was friendly, but minimal. The band went straight from one track into another. This was intense, layered, industrial-strength guitar music that was simultaneously raucous and beguiling. Great stuff.

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