Matt Stevens
Matt Stevens

A Conversation With... Matt Stevens

Any kid growing up in Canada with a passion for guitar has several influential players to reference. In fact, talk to most of our finest and they will point at each other or a variety of players from the past. Make your own top ten: Alex Lifeson, Robbie Robertson, Ed Bickert, Jeff Healey, Geddy Lee, Neil Young, Frank Marino, Lorne Lofsky, Sonny Greenwich, Daniel Lanois and you will find most in agreement, only differing on ranking.

Canadian guitarist Matt Stevens returns with a second recording as bandleader, Preverbal on Crystal Math Music in Canada.

The opener, “Picture Window,” garnered Stevens this write-up from critic Nate Chinen at NPR/WBGO. He says the music “advances the ideals of modern jazz even when, sonically speaking, it gestures in other directions.” He continues, “Stevens is not the sort of improviser to show you all of his cards, or even reveal his intentions: he prefers an air of alluring intrigue, down to the way the track ends, like a set of blinds snapping shut.”

Like most of his Canadian counterparts, Stevens walks his own territory melding traces of jazz and rock with effects laden processed sound that cries like splintered metal dragging along baking pavement. Stevens was the sonic sound master on Esperanza Spalding’s ‘Emily’s D+Evolution’, even enlisting the Grammy-winning artist to sing on Preverbal.

Since moving to the States at age nineteen and leaving Toronto behind, Stevens has found himself in great company – a rich, vibrant scene open to transformational innovation and creativity. Recently, Stevens was in Toronto doing a promotional run around, chatting up his June 29 appearance at TD Jazz Festival. Here’s a bit of our conversation.

You’ve been bouncing around the city with stops at CP24 and elsewhere, promoting a concert coming up at TD Jazz Festival.

I grew up here in the east end. My parents have sold their house so I’m sort of helping them get that together. I have this connection with the University of Toronto. I did the summer jazz workshop program when I was in high school; I don’t know if they still have that now.

Growing up here and being into guitar you must have been watching the Ed Bickerts and Domenic Troianos. Who were you clued in to?

Toronto has always been a guitar town to me. Even though I moved to the States when I was nineteen, those players really stuck with me. I feel there’s a real distinct approach to playing guitar and a sound to my ear that stem from Ed Bickert and Lennie Breau and Lorne Lofsky. Growing up and getting to hear these guys plus Rob Piltch and RegSchwager was a great boon for me.

Listening to what you are currently doing and thinking of a guitarist in Canada as brave, I’m thinking – Sonny Greenwich.

I think things are constantly in flux and changing and I need be open to that. It’s been a matter of not taking anything off the table in terms of what I’m allowing myself to incorporate into my music. I’ve always loved all kinds of music and don’t want to rule anything out. For me the most exciting music is that which doesn’t fit squarely inside of anything. And that isn’t necessarily a clumsy fusion or melding of two seemingly disparate genres, but rather something that’s on the fringes that’s mysterious and incorporates a lot of different things. I feel it’s a great time to be making music right now. I feel there’s a real appetite for that amongst musicians and listeners. I wasn’t making music in the 60s’ or 70s’, but I can imagine there’s a shared spirit there.

I can’t distill this music to be this and that, it’s more nuanced than that. I know who I am, and what I’ve studied and the music that means the most to me. It’s not up to others to tell what we are.

After Toronto where did you land?

I had a tuition scholarship to study at Berklee School of Music. I was invited to audition for the school. I should say Berklee has a lot more scholarship money than most schools do. I was fortunate having all my tuition covered but I had to pay for living still. At the time, the Canadian dollar wasn’t doing well, sort of like it’s doing now, and I needed to make some money. I had a friend who got me a job briefly on a cruise ship. I had my nineteenth birthday on a cruise ship that left from Miami to Boston, and I just stayed.

Berklee has been able to pull together a wonderful scholarship arrangement with the Slaight Family and each year president Roger Brown makes a visit to Toronto.

I know Roger – he’s a great guy. I was there during the end of Gary Burton’s term and Roger was incoming.

He has his own bluegrass band – I think he plays drums. Not too many institutions can say that.

There’s been an influx of wonderfully talented Canadians coming to New York via, often times, Berklee.

You’ve worked yourself into a position where people pay attention to you and that has much to do with working in high profile situations. How did you fall in with Christian Scott and Esperanza Spalding?

That was one of the best things about going to Berklee for me – meeting tons and tons of people I wouldn’t have otherwise come across and having things spider out from there. I met Christian at Berklee and he was just trying to get a band together towards the end of school. It was sort of that simple – he just asked if I wanted to work on his music with him. This would have been early 2000 and he signs a big record deal with Concord right out of school. His first record didn’t come out until 2006. We recorded that when we were twenty or twenty-one, just finishing up school. We knew he had a great platform with a major label behind him and being able to go out and tour – what a cool thing to do. One thing leads to another – if you are working with such and such on a certain project – I’ve seen it happen again and again. It takes a special kind of musician to be the first to kind of dap you. And when that happens you are seen as a viable choice for all kinds projects.

I’ve got to shout out Terri Lynn Carrington for being such a cool amazing, musician and person that way. I’ve been working with her the last three years and right now we are working on a new band I’m excited about – it’s a trio thing – an augmented trio thing with her and pianist Aaron Parks. She’s always been the kind of person who hears someone she likes and takes them on the road – just like that. It’s amazing. Not a lot of people have the guts to do that. She’s got a clear sense of what she wants in a player and what she’s after.

Where do you live now?

I live on 148th street up in Harlem.

How’s that working out?

It’s great. It’s changed a lot.

Have you ever dropped into the Apollo?

I have. I played a show with Esperanza last spring that was really fun. It’s hard to be in the moment of the place because you are so focused at the task at hand. It’s hard to step back as a performer and take in the gravitas of the situation.

Do you have any anxiety working with others?

Not really – I find that easier. If I’m hired to work with someone else I’m just responsible to do my job well. I’ve had a great time working with Esperanza, Christian and Dr. Lonnie Smith. I remember rehearsing for a gig with Smith in Portugal. He said, “can you make this gig?” I agreed and asked him what we were going to play and he said, “my music - just check out my records” and he’s got like twenty. No written charts – no reference to what we were going to play. I did the best I could to remember as much of his music as I could. I went to his apartment and rehearsed the songs and he’d play a chord and I’d ask, ‘what’s that?” He’d say, “shit I don’t know – that’s an F# - the pinky is playing an A – that kind of thing”. He’d just kind of spell it out in his own way. I loved that. It was this immediate reminder of where all music comes from.

Just a note I’ll be playing the TD Jazz, OLG Stage June 29th in Yorkville. Free show!

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