Pianist Matthew Whitaker began his life with more challenges than most.
He was born three months premature, blind and doctors gave him less than a 50% chance to live. Twenty years later, Whitaker has a successful jazz career, He's performed at venues like Carnegie Hall and the Apollo Theater, opened for Stevie Wonder, and is the youngest artist in history to be sponsored by both Hammond Organ and Yamaha Piano.
Whitaker has just released his third full-length album, “Connections,” and the title can be taken quite literally.
“I’m so happy [with] the way it turned out,” said Whitaker. “[The album] is about the connections I have with other people and their connections with me.”
Whitaker illustrates those connections throughout his own compositions as well as by adding a few works by some of his biggest influences. One of those additions came at the last minute.
“As you go along, you find things that you wanna change, remove, or add to the list,” he said. “For example, when Chick Corea passed away — rest in peace — we decided to [at the] last minute throw ‘Spain’ in there, which is a Chick Corea tune. The reason why we did that is because it’s a tribute to him. Anything can happen in a matter of a few seconds.”
Whitaker’s spontaneity also comes into play in a collaboration with fellow pianist, friend, and “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" bandleader Jon Batiste.
“Before the recording session, me and him had a session where it was duo piano in a spot in Jersey,” Whitaker explained. “He started playing that song [Bye-Ya] and I'm like ‘Oh, what’s the name of that?’”
After Batiste explained that the song was “Bye-Ya” by Thelonius Monk, Whitaker knew that had to be on the album. The two recorded a 20 minute improv session which yielded two pieces for “Connections,” the Monk composition as well as the title track.
While Whitaker has had many influences over the years his roots are firmly planted in the church and that too makes its mark on “Connections.” In addition to several appearances of the organ throughout the album, the last track is also a call to Whitaker’s faith, a 1905 gospel hymn entitled “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”
“I grew up in church and I wanted to have that vibe in there,” he said. “At the end of service I would go up on the side where we have a secondary organ, and I would just play on that. Our pastor at the time was like ‘Hey, let him keep playing,’ and now look.”
It’s clear that even with so much experience under his belt already, Whitaker is just getting started.
Matthew Whitaker Performs at the Mondavi Center at UC Davis on Friday, March 25 at 7:30 p.m.