Matthew Stevens: Pittsburgh

Despite using only a small Martin guitar, Stevens' draws a kaleidoscopic range of colour from a set of musical sketches


Stories of triumph from adversity are some of the most timeless and appealing we know, a plot device loved and repeated by filmmakers and novelists alike. When Toronto-born guitarist Matthew Stevens sustained a broken elbow after parting company with his bike on a rainy Pittsburgh day, I’m sure he didn’t imagine that the music heard on this EP-length set would become an essential part of his rehabilitation.

Starting their lives as a series of ideas and sketches, the pieces not only allowed Stevens to keep his creative juices flowing, but also allowed him to rebuild vital muscle groups and sharpen his dexterity. Stevens’ principal tool was a vintage Martin 00-17 small-bodied guitar, similar to one he’d previously used on Esperanza Spaulding’s 2017 Exposure. Dark, woody and responsive, the instrument adds a somewhat vintage patina to Stevens’ otherwise cutting-edge music.

Opening with a flurry of harmonics and bent pitches which briefly recall the late Derek Bailey, Ambler eases forward with a stuttering momentum. Vaguely East African patterns collide with sharply dissonant chords, but the unfolding drama is spellbinding. Purpose Of A Machine by contrast is more intricately structured. Swirling arpeggios and fleet fingerpicking sketch elegant patterns before the piece unexpectedly resolves with a block of heavy country chords.

Can-Am, written to mark Stevens’ recent award of US citizenship, is a masterclass of linear invention, while Foreign Ghosts, altogether more pastoral, is a vaguely Metheny-esque hymn to the Midwest. The shapeshifting Cocoon appeared on Stevens’ 2017 album Preverbal, but unlike the trio’s rather doom-laden rendition this version recalls Ralph Towner at his free-flowing best. Ending Is Beginning has a sentimental air redolent of Frisell’s Americana, while the simple call and response structure of Blue Blues makes it the most emotionally immediate piece of the set.

Some may question the album’s short running time, but I’m not generally the kind of person who’d add water to an espresso. Unique in Stevens’ discography, and surely an album that wouldn’t have been made without his recent brush with misfortune, Pittsburgh is a kaleidoscopic collection of bagatelles and études that will reward you with fresh perspectives each and every time you play it.

Ambler; Purpose Of A Machine; Buckets; Can Am; Foreign Ghosts; Northern Touch; Cocoon; Ending Is Beginning; Blue Blues; Broke; Miserere (31.00)
Matthew Stevens (g). 28 January and 4 March 2021, Pittsburgh.
Whirlwind Recordings WR4779