New York based guitarist Matthew Stevens has released an eleven-track album entitled Pittsburgh which features the man himself, a vintage Martin 00-17 small-body mahogany guitar, and two Neumann U89 microphones. This album is about as pared down as you can get with no overdubs or sound layering of any kind: so, how does it sound?
Let’s start with where the music comes from. Each track started as a series of ideas or “starts” as Matthew describes them which came about as the result of daily practice on the newly acquired Martin guitar. Following a cycling accident Matthew became immersed in a creative process that led straight to Pittsburgh: a document of those short song ‘starts’ from a notebook, now hatched as completed compositions.
“Playing this music became a big part of my rehab,” Stevens recalls. “My aunt is a physical therapist, so I was doing sessions with her online. She said that what we do as guitar players is so specific, it uses muscle groups we’re not even aware of. She told me I needed to start playing as soon as I could, so those things don’t seize up and you don’t lose strength. She said, ‘I know you can’t lift a shopping bag, but if you feel like you can play at all you should play.’ I really could have been flailing, but the solo project offered me a different path: I had material to work on and I could just lose myself in it because it required so much repetition, such close attention to things that are slow and deliberate. It spared me from a lot of mental anguish.”
‘Purpose of A Machine’ has an arpeggiated pattern as does ‘Can Am’ and ‘Cocoon’ but that is not to say that they all sound the same. Although there are stylistic similarities, they are melodically very different: there is an intensity of emotion in ‘Cocoon’ for example that is not present in ‘Purpose of A Machine’. What they do have in common is an image of a musician at one with his instrument, who knows when he has said all that he needs to say and moves on.
‘Foreign Ghosts’, ‘Ending is Beginning’, and the final track, ‘Miserere’ are more lyrical in construction, undisturbed and still. ‘Foreign Ghosts’ centres on a beautiful melody punctuated by short strummed sections. There is a lovely pulse like use of a single note in ‘Ending is Beginning’ that maintains the idea of restfulness throughout. ‘Miserere’ has an ancient hymnal quality about it that I found very peaceful when listening to it.
‘Ambler’ and ‘Northern Touch’ have a more contemporary sound, slightly edgier in style. ‘Ambler’ opens the album but could not be said to be indicative of the direction in which the record will travel it just left me curious as to what was to follow. ‘Northern Touch’ is open spaced allowing the sound could resonate and giving the listener time to reflect on what is being played and heard. Track nine, ‘Blue Blues’, is for me the standout track of the album. I enjoyed its construction, variety within the track and the standard of playing. It is one of those tracks that improves with every subsequent listen
So, what we have in Pittsburgh is a completed set of “starts” but there are times after playing the album when I don’t necessarily consider that they are complete. I have listened through Pittsburgh several times and still come away with the feeling that these tracks are musical vignettes that could be expanded, filled out with other instruments perhaps, but on the other hand they could simply be left exactly as they are: the less is more argument.
There is something intriguing, fascinating, and beautiful about this music that I found compelling – and the fact that I don’t always feel that this album is the finished article even more irresistible. This is not an out and out jazz record but a collection of tunes that one man, with a guitar, has absolute confidence in and is prepared to share with anyone who is drawn to well written compositions that have been honed and pared back to their musical and emotional essence.
Pittsburgh is released 8 October on Whirlwind Recordings available via Bandcamp
Tracklist: 1. Ambler. 2. Purpose of A Machine. 3. Buckets. 4. Can Am. 5. Foreighn Ghosts. 6. Northern Touch. 7. Cocoon. 8. Ending is Beginning. 9. Blue Blues. 10. Broke. 11. Miserere