Stevens has backed the likes of Esperanza Spalding and Christian Scott. Now he heads out in innovative directions of his own.
It takes a couple listens to really quantify what you are hearing in Matthew Stevens's song "Reservoir," off his new album Preverbal, out March 24. At first, it is easy to write off the new track as jazz simply because it is difficult to quantify and also notably because Stevens has spent the better part of his career backing Grammy-winning and -nominated jazz standouts such as, respectively, Esperanza Spalding and Christian Scott. Yet I'm not convinced that that's what I am hearing on this song.
"I've always imagined this music in dark standing room venues where you feel like you're stepping into our world and it's a sensory experience that goes beyond sitting down and watching a band on a stage," Stevens told me when I asked him about the sound recently. He later added, "I want it to feel like stepping into a vibrant world with all the feelings and colors there to be discovered and experienced, the same as is in our living world."
The track is objectively impressive, and Stevens's control over the glass-like tone of his guitar is simply too pleasing to the ears to say this isn't great music. Fans of music like the powerhouse prog-metal of Animals As Leaders will hear jazz guitar chords and solos that would make Tosin Abasi pause with admiration. Hip-hop heads who have bopped to jazz group BadBadNotGood will find similar grooves suited for backing their favorite rapper. And post-rock nerds who have long idolized Radiohead's soaring vocals and syncopated drum sequencing will find common cause with Stevens's complex and often lyrical composition.
"The goal is to create something not only unique but that has emotional impact and comes from within," Stevens explained of his composition process. "I think that's a feeling you get better at recognizing the longer you make music."
The track's video, which is premiering below, is shot in a hazy, warm, dreamlike state, punctuated by the changing groove and weightless tonal qualities midway through the song. That indistinctness is one of the selling points: This music would be at home in a jazz club on a bill with some virtuoso, in a DIY space alongside an instrumental rock group, or even on the jam band festival circuit. Wherever you choose to groove to "Reservoir," though, it probably will introduce you to something that expands your sense of what music and sounds are out there. I recommend taking a step into Stevens's world.
Pat Shahabian is a writer, musician, and video producer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.