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.”
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