In a rousing performance with an accomplished band, 22-year-old pianist Matthew Whitaker delivers the goods, reassuring an excited audience that the future of jazz is in capable hands.
By John Lavitt
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 05-24-2023
Presented as a joint promotion by CAP UCLA and the Theatre at the Ace Hotel, Matthew Whitaker’s performance on May 21st was nothing less than an inspiration come to life. Born in Hackensack, New Jersey, in 2001, Matthew Whitaker is only 22 years old and has just graduated from Julliard. However, earlier this year, the African-American pianist came out with his third jazz album, the innovative and timely Connections. Indeed, overcoming the challenge of being blind from birth, the young man always has been a step ahead of the game.
At 13 years old, Whitaker became the youngest artist by far to be endorsed by Hammond Organs. He was named a Yamaha Artist two years later, joining that company’s stellar roster of accomplished musicians. In 2019 and 2020, he won the ASCAP Foundation Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composers award for his first venture into solo recorded compositions: Emotions and Underground. Matthew Whitaker’s latest sixteen-track collection reveals the young man’s heightened maturity and ongoing evolution as a musician, composer, and bandleader.
Once again, the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA proves its dedication to presenting the most cutting-edge and innovative artists to the Los Angeles cultural scene. With an incredible backing band of a guitarist, bass player (both electronic and standing), drummer, and percussionist, Matthew Whitaker knows how to bring the very best to the stage. Hence, each musician was accomplished to the point of keeping pace with this brilliant pianist, helping to take the central performance to the next level of realization.
In his latest compositions, Whitaker balances his modern love for synthesizers with his classical reverence for the grand piano and the organ. Beyond the precision of the pieces, their volition cannot be denied. With energy and verve, Whitaker keeps the music flowing like a river roaring toward an ocean of expansion and love. Indeed, the joy of his performance is infectious, and you cannot deny the happiness of his band as they perform with him. There is no doubt that something special is happening on stage, and it takes your breath away to watch it live.
Beyond the individual excellence of his compositions, Matthew Whitaker also has a quality on stage that is essential for the upkeep of the great tradition of jazz masters. When he plays Louis Armstrong, Chick Corea, Dave Brubeck, and everything in between, he does so with a reverence that must be noted and celebrated. Indeed, we have never seen an instrumental version of “What A Wonderful World” that balances respect for the original with creative innovation so well. Although Whitaker is exploring new grounds, he displays a reverence for his precursors and the legends of jazz.
Celebrating the future of jazz with dignity and respect, Matthew Whitaker is a creative powerhouse. Moving forward, we can all heave a sigh of relief, knowing that if he is emblematic of the new generation, America’s finest homegrown art form is in good hands. From bringing out the best in his bandmates to exploring new ways to express virtuosity, this young man is an exciting presence, opening the door to what is to come on the near horizon of improvisation and compositional expression.
Photos by Bailey Holiver