Matthew Whitaker first earned national attention in 2016 when, at the age of 15, he appeared on television’s “Showtime at the Apollo” series and dazzled the audience (at New York’s famed Apollo Theater) with a vibrant version Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish,” inspiring host Steve Harvey to dub him Matthew “Stevie Wonder” Whitaker.
So it’s fitting, in a way, that Whitaker fills his third album, Connections (released Aug. 13), with the kind of uplifting, socially conscious messages that Wonder is known for. Original songs such as “Stop Fighting” (see video below), “A New Day,” “Acceptance” and “It Will Be Okay” reflect Whitaker’s desire to counter Pandemic Era chaos with some positivity.
The title has multiple meanings. There are connections between him and the beloved composers whose songs he has chosen to record (including Wonder, Chick Corea, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Dave Brubeck). Connections between various musical styles: Songs such as Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” are straightforward, but there are touches of Latin funk on “Jeannine,” spacey jazz-rock fusion on “Acceptance” and gospel on the classic hymn, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” And connections between him and the other musicians on the album, including guests such as Jon Batiste and Regina Carter.
“One of my main goals was to capture the connections between me and other artists, and other artists with me,” said Whitaker, 20. “We were able to get a lot of my favorite people that I have played with, and other people that I have worked with over the years.”
Whitaker does not sing on the album, but does include a spoken word segment before “Stop Fighting” in which he asks, “Why all the negativity in the world? Why are we shooting each other? Why are we abusing each other? Why are we bullying each other? Just stop.”
“I wrote (the song) because of what had been happening in 2020, specifically,” said Whitaker, referring to the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests. “But just because you don’t see it on the news (now), doesn’t mean it’s not still happening all over the world. So I would always encourage that message to stop fighting, ’cause we don’t need that in this world. We need peace, we need positivity.”
A strong, steady rhythm is heard in one part of the song. That’s meant to evoke the sound of protesters marching and be a tribute to them, he said.
Whitaker grew up in Hackensack and still lives there. Not a bad location for someone who is interested in jazz and eager to hear artists perform in New York. “We’re about, like, 10 or 15 minutes from the GWB (George Washington Bridge),” he said. “We just drive in and, boom, we’re in New York.”
Whitaker was born three months premature and weighing less than two pounds; the oxygen that kept him alive in his early days damaged his eyes and caused his permanent blindness. He started playing keyboards at the age of 3 and won his first Apollo Theater amateur night at 9. At 10, he was asked to perform when Wonder was inducted into the Apollo Hall of Fame.
“We didn’t have the time to chat because I had to go onstage and play,” he said. “But it was real nice to meet him, and I hope to work with him.”
One of the places Whitaker has studied is the Jazz House Kids program, in Montclair.
“I’m still involved with them as an alumni,” he said. “But I’ve been going there since I was about 7, I believe. They’ve been very supportive — of everyone. I’ve played in different scenarios (there) and different ensembles, and I was able to help out with starting up the organ division as well, which is really good. And I appreciate Radam Schwartz and all the rest of the staff for supporting me and other young jazz artists.”
Jazz House Kids’ artistic director, Christian McBride, played bass on Whitaker’s 2017 debut album, Outta the Box.
“I can’t even remember how old he was when we first met him,” says McBride. “I think he may have been 9 or 10. And at this point, musical talent is really secondary to your drive, your passion, your energy, who you are as a person. Because, really, musicianship is only a reflection of who you are as a person. You can be the most talented kid in the world, but if you have no drive, if you’re just kind of relying on your talent to get by … most people, particularly veterans, can see through that.
“I remember when Isaiah J. Thompson first started at Jazz House Kids … he was a novice. He sounded like you sound when you first start playing the piano. But there was something about his drive, his energy. We would give him assignments and he would come back and nail it the next week. And I just remember: ‘Keep your eye on that little kid right there.’ And now look at him. He’s out there working.
“So that same thing applies to Matty, because when he first started at Jazz House, he just couldn’t wait to learn.”
In a spoken word segment on Connections, Whitaker basically sums up his life to this point, saying:
Imagine an infant, born at 24 weeks, weighing one pound and 11 ounces, and the doctor is telling his parents he has less than a 50 percent chance of survival. Later on, that same infant comes home and, 11 surgeries later, doctors list all the things that child would not be able to do: crawl, walk and speak. Then imagine that child, motivated by music, being able to do those things. Imagine that young person today, visiting other countries, learning about those cultures through music and sharing those moments with others so that they, too, can dare to dream. I’m thankful that with the right tools and support, I’m able to follow my dreams. Which brings me to this very moment to share with you that it’s not where you start, but where you end up.
Whitaker will perform at a free concert at Hudson River Park in New York, Aug. 25 at 6 p.m.; visit littleisland.org. He also will perform at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton on Oct. 29; visit mccarter.org.
For more information, visit matthewwhitaker.net.
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