Matthew Whitaker Quartet review- Symphony Center Presents Jazz

Jazz pianist Matthew Whitaker; photo courtesy of the artist and The Chicago Symphony Orchestra
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On February 28, 2020, The Matthew Whitaker Quartet appeared in place of an ill Abdullah Ibrahim and Ekaya at The Symphony Center Presents Jazz series concert at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago.

Matthew Whitaker, 18, is an American jazz pianist, blind since birth, hailed as a musical prodigy. At age 10, he opened for Stevie Wonder’s induction into the Apollo Theater’s Hall of Fame. Whitaker was the subject of Thrive, a 13-minute documentary about “the prodigious talent and irrepressible spirit of a musically precocious 12-year-old blind boy”, and most recently was the subject of a 60 Minutes profile that aired Sunday, February 22, 2020, in which one of his teachers, classical pianist Dalia Sakris, refers to his “insane” ability to hear a piece of music for the first time and be instantly able to play it on the piano. That ability has been nurtured and substantiated by extensive classical training; he’s now enrolled at Julliard in the Jazz Study program.

In 2017 Whitaker released his first album through Jazz Foundation of America, entitled Outta the Box, with colleagues Christian McBride, bass; Dave Stryker, guitar; Will Calhoun, drums; Sammy Figueroa, percussion; jazz vocalist Melissa Walker; and James Carter, saxophone.  A Yamaha and Hammond endorsed artist, his second album, dubbed Now Hear This, was released by Resilience Musical Alliance in 2019; for that project he was joined by keyboardist Marc Cary; bassist Yunior Terry; guitarist Dave Stryker; drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr. and percussionist Sammy Figueroa. Both albums have been well-received.

Jazz pianist Matthew Whitaker; photo courtesy of the artist and The Chicago Symphony Orchestra

For the performance at Symphony Center (and tour to follow) Whitaker was joined by Marcos Robinson, guitar; Karim Hutton, bass, and Isaiah Johnson, drums. As on the recordings, Whitaker moved seemingly effortlessly between instruments, performing with the quartet a seamless mix of original compositions and covers of jazz standards, including Matt’s Blues, Yardbird Suite, Underground, Tranquility, Overcoat, Thinking of you, Mas Que Nada, Bernie’s Tune and Miss Michelle.

The sound was fluid, filled with refined dynamics, a light and artful touch, accompanied by sophisticated/bright strings and rhythm. Perhaps the hottest piece was the Quartet’s cover of Eddie Harris’ Freedom Jazz Dance, strong, soulful and sultry. Make no mistake about it, the sounds that emanate from piano and Hammond B3 organ are nobody’s first impression! This is an artist who is here for the long haul, whose approach to each instrument is thoughtful and distinctive- melodic and improvisational on piano, complex textured and harmonically dense on organ. With a personal touch, supported by virtuoso colleagues, the young Whitaker, whose delight and enthusiasm pour forth unabated, was the centerpiece of the concert- smooth, graceful, and exuberant.

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