A Gesture of Release: Pianist Matthew Whitaker Performs Live at the South Beach Jazz Festival

When pianist and organist Matthew Whitaker closed his concert at the South Beach Jazz Festival in Miami Beach on January 8 with Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration,” for a moment, months of fear and isolation seemed to dissipate. A few in the properly distanced, limited-numbered audience at the open-air North Beach Bandshell got up and danced. It felt equal parts a gesture of release and defiance. For many of us, the simple act of attending a live show and sharing the music with a group of fellow human beings, in person, even if at a distance and with masks, was both extraordinary and wonderfully mundane.

There was nothing ordinary about Whitaker, however. A blind, prodigiously talented 19 year old (he won’t be 20 until April) with a light touch and quick hands, he was fearless enough to jump in the deep end of bop, classic 70s electric fusion, R&B, Latin jazz — and bring to the party a couple of original tunes.

Backed by his regular quartet — Marcos Robinson, guitar; Karim Hutton, bass; and Isaiah Johnson, drums — Whitaker zigged and zagged unhurriedly between Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance,” Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite” (which he approached in an organ trio format), and Herbie Hancock’s “Actual Proof ” — before turning left and revisiting Jorge Ben’s “Mas Que Nada,”  a hit for Sergio Mendes in the 60s, his own piece “Emotions,” and for good measure, Earth Wind & Fire’s catchy “September.”

Marcos Robinson (left) and Matthew Whitaker perform at the South Beach Jazz Festival in Miami on January 8. (Photo: Harvey Burnstein of MiamiArtzine)

But Whitaker does not seem to program this material for the sake of nostalgia or as a revivalist. As promising as he appeared as a player, he sounded just as intriguing as an arranger. With his song choices, he sometimes suggested an archeologist going through old artifacts, trying to understand what life was like back then — only to put it back together his own way. Every piece seemed to have several time signatures, a couple of tempo changes, and harmonic passageways to unexpected resolutions. He good-naturedly poked and pulled at the material, as if to find what else might be there, how far it would stretch, whether it was Chick Corea’s speed test “Got a Match?” or Deniece Williams’s anthemic “Black Butterfly.”

An astounding facility at the keyboards, a curious mind, and an engaging presence as a performer make a great combination. Whitaker has justly gained a lot of recognition and applause at a young age; more, no doubt, is to come.

A note about the festival: Whitaker was an inspired choice to launch the fifth edition of this three-day South Beach Jazz Festival, a fundraiser for the non-profit organization, Power Access which has as a goal “to bring awareness to the community about people living with disabilities and to provide opportunities for those people.” The Festival, by design, “takes pride in featuring world-renowned musicians who also have disabilities.” Another reason to celebrate.

Photos courtesy Harvey Burnstein of MiamiArtzine

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