On stage, Matthew Whitaker looks very much like the teenager that he is. When he picks up a microphone to announce a tune or introduce his bandmates his affable “aw shucks” tone accentuates his youthful demeanor. But sandwiched between a Hammond B-3 organ and a Yamaha grand with an iRig MIDI controller positioned on the piano’s music shelf he’s a self-possessed captain in complete command of a sleek and powerful combo.
At 19, Whittaker has spent the past decade earning his stripes as a professional musician, evolving from a startlingly gifted church-nurtured prodigy to blazing bandleader and recording artist. In late September he brought his quartet into New York City’s Bowery Ballroom and recorded a rip-snorting set for Cal Performances at Home, a concert that premieres tonight at 7 p.m. and remains available for streaming through Feb. 3, 2021.
He’s been attracting national attention since Stevie Wonder invited him to play a tune during his 2011 induction into the Apollo Theater Hall of Fame (Whitaker returned to the storied venue in 2016, performing Wonder’s classic “I Wish” for FOX TV’s Showtime at the Apollorevival). His first encounter with the iconic star “was a great experience,” Whitaker said from his home in Hackensack, New Jersey. “It was a quick meet and greet but he gave me one of his harmonicas.”
Whitaker hasn’t incorporated the harp into his onstage arsenal yet, but he’s a prodigious multi-instrumentalist. Delivered almost three month premature, he lost his eyesight as a newborn but survived against the odds. He first displayed a preternatural feel for music at three, when his grandfather gave him a little Yamaha keyboard.
He quickly taught himself to play tunes he heard around the house, and at five he started studying classical piano at the nation’s only community music school for the blind and visually impaired, New York City’s Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg Music School (his lovely ballad dedicated to the institution, “Emotions,” is a centerpiece of the Cal Performances concert).
As a performer, Whitaker started playing piano in the New Hope Baptist Church in Hackensack, but it wasn’t the only instrument that caught his ear. “After service we’d be hanging around and I’d find the organ too,” he said. “My dad tried to shew me away but the pastor said let him keep playing. And every Sunday I’d go to where the drums were to listen to the drummer play. Eventually I was playing drums at the Third Sunday services. When our organist had some situations to deal with I became the organist, a position I’ve held for the last four or five years.”
While Whitaker didn’t bring his drum kit to the Bowery his rhythmic prowess and acute sense of the trap set’s role in shaping an arrangement is evident throughout the set. Working together for the past two years his young band with electric guitarist Marcos Robinson, electric bassist Karin Hutton, and drummer Isaiah Johnson has honed a capacious group palette that seamlessly encompasses straight ahead swing, rock, and Latin grooves.
The set they recorded for Cal Performances captures an ensemble with an impressive command of dynamics and a consistently riveting repertoire. Whitaker’s original tunes stand up well amidst an array of well-chosen pieces, like the classic Eddie Harris romp “Freedom Jazz Dance” and Dominican pianist Michel Camilo’s coruscating “Caribe” (a piece memorably recorded by Dizzy Gillespie).
Whitaker can wax pensively introspective, like on Ahmad Jamal’s exquisite ballad “Tranquility,” but his primary emotional range runs from exuberantly playful to deliriously joyful, like on Snarky Puppy keyboardist Cory Henry’s “Gotcha Now,” and Jimmy McGriff’s scorching “Groovin’ Blues.” Most of the tunes are featured on his second album, 2019’s Now Hear This (Resilience Music Alliance), but the material has evolved considerably since then. The band is as likely to evoke a guitar-centric funk combo as a swinging jazz unit.
“That’s why you have people who can go there,” Whitaker said. “I appreciate people pushing musically and Marcos can tear it up or play very spare. I’ve been telling him use the whole range of your instrument. That’s what my parents always tell me. What my parents tell me I tell them.”
A second year student at Juilliard studying with the widely admired jazz pianist/composer Frank Kimbrough, Whitaker was particularly pleased to get a chance to work with his band. He’s been staying close to since the pandemic hit. In recent weeks he started playing in church again and rehearsing with the quartet, but the Bowery show was an all tour rare outing. He’s spent a lot of his down time writing new material and working out arrangements “figuring out ways to embellish the songs,” he said. “That’s the thing about jazz I love, the freedom. I love playing with these guys. They can go anywhere.”
Danny Scher, former Bill Graham executive and longtime Kensington resident, discusses the story behind the acclaimed Thelonious Monk live album Palo Alto on 5 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14. He produced the 1968 concert as a junior at Paly High and kept the reel-to-reel tapes for some five decades before working out a deal with Monk’s estate. The latest in a series of online conversations presented by Living Jazz in partnership with KSCM, “Call & Response: Monk Talks Monk with Danny Scher” is hosted by Chris Cortez and includes T.S. Monk, the drummer, producer, and son of the legendary pianist and composer.