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Matthew Whitaker’s inspiring personal story makes it hard for anyone to be fully objective about the multi-talented pianist-composer’s prolific output. The headline of an article 60 Minutes ran in conjunction with its on-air profile prepares us for a lifetime of big stuff from the 20-year-old who, at 13, was the youngest player ever endorsed by Hammond USA: “Meet the Blind Piano Player Who’s So Good, Scientists are Studying Him.” Blissful, soulful and often quite intensely rhythmic, everything the virtuoso offers on his ultra-eclectic third album Connections lives up to and surpasses the hype.
Human interest stuff aside, Whitaker’s a serious young cat who as a pianist, Hammond B-3 organist and Fender Rhodes player is as steeped in the traditions of his family’s New Hope Baptist Church as he is in the sacred jazz congregations of Chick Corea, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck and Duke Pearson. His freewheeling, sometimes subtle, often boisterous approach to classics by these heavy influences provides a good entry point to understanding the multitude of vibes he brings to this 16-track set — starting with the wildly interactive, percussive drama he stirs up with Jon Batiste on a tasty duet version of Monk’s “Bye-Ya.”
Whitaker brings a bold, funky improvisational B-3/Rhodes spirit to “Spain”; engages in some sly, jaunty blues with Regina Carter on “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”; and blasts into hard-swinging, brassy Latin overdrive on “Jeannine.”
Some of Whitaker’s originals, from the rambunctious B-3 jams “A New Day” (featuring slick guitar work by Marcos Robinson) and “It Will Be Okay” to the dramatic title track meditation (featuring his piano interacting with Otis Brown III’s brash drums and hi-hat), reflect on a post-pandemic sense of hope and reconnection. The emotional centerpiece to this constantly hopping set is the multi-movement “Stop Fighting,” a thoughtful journey of self-discovery in the wake of the racial and social justice re-awakening of 2020. — Jonathan Widran