Photo Credit: @ Nia Tate Photography
"Matthew Whitaker is only 18, and he’s also blind, but the musicianship, arrangements, and band leading skills displayed here would be equally impressive were this album made by someone with five times the experience." "Now Hear This" - Jeff Tamarkin, JazzTimes Magazine
"With plenty of buzz already behind him, 18-year-old Matthew Whitaker lives up to expectations on Now Hear This...” - Bob Doerschuk, Downbeat Magazine
"The Ronnie Scott's debut of Matthew Whitaker was an absolute beauty. What a fantastic talent and a great musician he is at such a young age. The kid turned the place up side down!"
Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club - London England
"He's not extraordinary because he's blind. He's extraordinary because he's extraordinary."
Ray Chew - Musical Director/Producer
"The two standouts of Saturday's performances were born 66 years apart. Keyboardist Matthew Whitaker is likely the first bandleader born in the 21st century to play the festival. Whitaker is only 17 and blind, but his consciousness of the crowd was stronger than the average jazz bandleader. ....He sat center stage between two very large pieces of furniture: a Hammond B3 and a grand piano. ....Alternating between the two keyboards, Whitaker summoned the ghosts of Larry Young and Oscar Peterson. ....Whitaker's instrumental trio inspired spontaneous dancing and a standing ovation. As a student of great piano masters, he has quickly identified the buttons that resonate with a crowd looking for a good time."
Playboy Jazz Festival
Sean L. O'Connell - Los Angeles Times
"Playboy Jazz served up an admirably eclectic lineup, highlighted by some forward-thinking young jazz ensembles....and crowd-pleasing newcomers (pianist Matthew Whitaker, whose trio was a Saturday afternoon highlight)."
Playboy Jazz Festival
Andy Herman - DownBeat Magazine
"This year a highlight was the Matthew Whitaker Trio. Reading Whitaker’s bio during his performance I thought it must be a mistake that he was born in 2001!! But it is true. At home on the grand piano and organ, Whitaker delivered both original compositions as well as his own arrangements of other jazz standards and jazz interpretations of pop tunes. On top of that he is blind....Playing a solo on the organ foot pedals and another playing piano with his right hand and organ with his left hand, he amazed the audience with his talent and versatility."
Andy McCulloch - Indonesia Expat
"A few months ago, during a WBGO 40th anniversary concert at the Gateway Center, Matthew Whitaker had a large lunchtime crowd practically eating out of his hands. Whitaker is that kind of musician...”
“...at 18 he’s already a seasoned pro with a substantial following…” - WBGO Jazz 88.3 FM
After a remarkable year that found him sharing the gift of music with audiences from Kennedy Center to Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater, 15 year old jazz prodigy, Matthew Whitaker, unleashed his debut studio album.
Under the auspices of the Jazz Foundation of America, Whitaker’s Outta The Box features 10 outstanding tracks introducing listeners to his composing and arranging skills. While his light shines bright on six original compositions like “Matt’s Blues” and “Neighborhood Park,” he also serves up a nod with his own arrangements to some of his favorite jazz greats like Dr. Lonnie Smith and Ms. Rhoda Scott with their songs “Back Track” and “Pistachio.”
Matthew’s not alone on this ride either. He brings along quite a few great friends like Christian McBride, Dave Stryker, and Ray Chew, who all lend a musical hand in helping Matthew piece together Outta The Box. - Rob Milton
15-year-old Whitaker was heating up The Harlem School of the Arts' benefit concert, at Manhattan’s Highline Ballroom. He was the opening act, bandleader and musical director....“That boy just threw the holy spirit on that!"
Havelock Nelson - The Huffington Post
" Pianist Matthew Whitaker (an amazing artist) played a jazzy rendition of The Birth of the Blues and the crowd went wild."
Carolyn Kelemen - DC Metro Theater Arts
" In another heartfelt moment, McBride teamed his bass with piano, played by 15-year-old Matthew Whitaker of Hackensack, for Oscar Peterson's "Hymn to Freedom."
"Carpenter showcased an up-and-coming jazz organist, the 14-year-old prodigy Matthew Whitaker. Whitaker demonstrated musicality beyond his years, beginning with a slow, soulful introduction, before launching into a rousing spectacle of virtuosity."
Benjamin Charles - Palm Beach Daily News
"Also performing that night with host Wayne Brady was a 13-year-old blind keyboard phenom named Matthew Whitaker, who played like the second coming of Ray Charles."
Anthony Mason - CBS Sunday Morning
“He hears music and he hears the entire picture right from the start. He innately understands the structures and how the chords are there and has that whole picture in his mind. …he’s so happy when he’s doing music.”
Dalia Sakas – The Filomen M. D'Agostino Greenberg Music School
Coordinator and Classical Music Instructor
"It has been my privilege to present this musical prodigy to the Apollo Theater audiences since he was age 9. As composer, arranger and musician, Matthew Whitaker is beyond his years and focused on sharing his gifts and joy with the world. Enjoy, with the knowledge that there is more to come." - Marion J. Caffey - Producer Amateur Night at the Apollo
“To warm up the crowd for the main event, 13-year old Apollo organ player veteran Matthew Whitaker started off with Michael Jackson’s “Baby Be Mine” on the keyboard. This boy may be young, but his skill exceeds many older musicians. His sense of rhythm and his style of performance made the audience fall in love with him right out of the gate. He then played “Never Too Much” by Luther Vandross and was just as amazing. Afterwards he performed Sergio Mendez’s “Mas Que Nada” which got the crowd all jazzed up....... and then finished his performance with his own piece entitled “Matt’s Blues.” The amazing thing about this young and talented musician is that he is also blind, but that didn’t stop him from giving the performance of his life during this pre-show opening.”
Vinesh Vora - Source Magazine
"Matthew Whitaker is music. To see and hear him play is to know that divine talent exists. Beyond his innate musical abilities is a sheer joy and passion to create music. You can expect great things on the horizon from this remarkable and lovable young musician." Monifa Brown - WBGO Jazz 88.3 FM
"At the Jazz Foundation of America’s “A Great Night in Harlem” benefit concert at the Apollo last week – a show that played host to stars like Elvis Costello, Macy Gray, Quincy Jones, Morgan Freeman as well as Jazz ringers like Steven Bernstein and Nicolas Payton – 12-year-old Matthew Whitaker stole the show...., Matthew Whitaker is quickly becoming one of the promising young talents in jazz."
Ryan Dembinsky - Contributing Editor for Hidden Track
"This young man is a genius! I love the way he's mastering those keys.....he will go far....watch out!"
Jon Batiste - Musician
"If you could imagine what Ray Charles and Jimmy McGriff looked like at age 13 but played like at age 30, then you will discover Matthew Whitaker."
Wendy Oxenhorn - Executive Director Jazz Foundation of America
Jazz Foundation of America Loft Party "The real draw, though, was the music....Despite his young age, Mr. Whitaker was one of the more sought-after guests; older musicians came up to him to praise his performance and to introduce themselves."
Carson Griffith - The Wall Street Journal
"Matthew is an exceptional young musician and an outstanding representative of our music school. We have high hopes that he will go far in his career."
Leslie Jones – Executive Director of The Filomen M. D'Agostino Greenberg Music School
We have just fallen in love with Matthew because of his love for music, his enthusiasm, his energy. "Here is this very gifted child, but he’s not going into hip hop or rock and roll, he’s playing jazz music."
Cephas Bowles – WBGO Jazz 88.3 FM President and Chief Executive Officer
"Hearing how Matthew has a free and creative approach to the drum set, I can not keep myself from thinking of Tony Williams, who began his career at 13 years old."
Marc Wagnon – The Filomen M. D'Agostino Greenberg Music School , Percussion, Jazz and Music Technology Instructor
"Young Matthew Whitaker, who played the piano and also happened to be blind, stole the show as he jammed and improvised. He garnered probably the loudest ovation of the night after he finished his solo, and conductor Steven Reineke, (NY Pops orchestra), was blown away by how good the 11-year-old was. “I was just told that the young man on the keys is only 11 years old. Are you kidding me? That's ridiculous!”
Ross Bernhardt - Writer for Charged.fm on performance with Ozomatli and NY Pops at SummerStage.
"I caught wind of this genius child over the weekend and I am truly astonished at his talent and love of jazz. He has amazed everyone who hears him play. Not only does he burn it up on piano and Hammond, he kills it on the drums too! "
Jazz N Pop
Reflections: Resilience Music Alliance
Though he’s still only 18 years old, multi-instrumentalist Matthew Whitaker has come a long way to get where he is today, overcoming adversity and dedicating countless hours to honing his craft. Now, with his declarative label debut Now Hear This, Whitaker announces himself as a major new voice on jazz piano, organ, and a wide range of keyboard instruments.
Via Resilience Music Alliance, Now Hear This teams Whitaker with a stellar all-star band featuring guitarist Dave Stryker, bassist Yunior Terry, drummer Ulysses Owens Jr., and percussionist Sammy Figueroa. Keyboard great Marc Cary and flutist Gabrielle Garo also make special guest appearances. The album was overseen by GRAMMY® Award-winning producer Brian Bacchus, who has worked closely with the likes of Gregory Porter, Norah Jones, Randy Weston and Sullivan Fortner, among others.
But it’s Whitaker that commands the spotlight, evidencing a bold and confident sense of swing and a wide-ranging palette that spans straight-ahead jazz and hard bop to R&B and Latin influences. Supplementing his virtuoso piano skills with soulful Hammond organ and coloristic synthesizers, Whitaker leaves any “prodigy” stigma far behind on this stunner of an album.
Whitaker’s distinctive voice would be captivating under any circumstances, but the obstacles that he’s had to overcome in his young life make Now Hear This all the more breathtaking. He was born three months premature in 2001, weighing less than two pounds and able to fit in the palm of his father’s hand. The newborn was given less than a 50% chance of surviving; the oxygen that he was given by doctors allowed him to live but cost him his sight.
Blindness proved no obstacle to playing music, however, and Whitaker displayed preternatural talents from the first moment he touched a keyboard. That initial opportunity came at the age of 3, when Whitaker’s grandfather gifted him a small Yamaha keyboard. “I would come home from school and teach myself nursery rhymes,” Whitaker recalls. “No one showed me how, I just started playing. If I can hear it, I can play it.”
At 5 Whitaker began studying classical piano at the Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg Music School in New York City, the only community music school for the blind and visually impaired in the United States. He continues to work closely with the school; his heartfelt composition “Emotions” was written expressly for a performance there. “They’ve supported me since I was 5 and they continue to do that to this day,” Whitaker says.
As a blind African-American piano prodigy, comparisons to Stevie Wonder were inevitable. Meaningfully, Wonder himself gave the younger keyboard wizard his imprimatur when he invited Whitaker to open for him during his induction into the Apollo Theater Hall of Fame. In 2016 Whitaker returned to that legendary stage, this time performing Wonder’s classic “I Wish” for FOX TV’s revival of Showtime at the Apollo.
But Whitaker never set out to be a Stevie Wonder clone, and while the soul icon is a definite influence Whitaker can rattle off a long list of indelible influences that leans heavily towards jazz giants like McCoy Tyner, Barry Harris, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. His gifts have been recognized by a number of jazz luminaries who have provided crucial mentorship, including Cary, Christian McBride, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Regina Carter, Jon Batiste, Roy Ayers and Jason Moran, among others.
His musical path was set at the age of 7 when his father dialed into a jazz station on the car radio one day. “Ever since then it’s been my favorite genre of music to play and listen to,” Whitaker says with obvious enthusiasm. “Unlike other styles of music where you play what’s on a sheet of paper or play just like a recording, with jazz you have the ability to be free with the music and improvise. You can really do you.”
Whitaker has done just that from an early age, adding drums to his repertoire at 6 and the Hammond organ at 9, inspired by such legendary forebears as Dr. Lonnie Smith, Charles Earland, Jimmy Smith and Joey DeFrancesco. Whitaker shows off his impassioned B3 playing on a dazzling original arrangement of Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite” that he premiered during his debut performance at NYC’s Charlie Parker Jazz Festival.
A more intimate, impressionistic side of his organ playing emerges on his own original, “Thinking of You,” which Whitaker insists is an open-ended dedication, with no single “You” in mind. He renders the Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil hit “Black Butterfly,” best known for Deniece Williams’ version, in soulful atmospherics embellished by Cary’s Fender Rhodes, and gets deeply funky on Eddie Harris’ immortal “Freedom Jazz Dance,” here highlighted by Stryker’s blistering wah-wah guitar.
The album opens on Whitaker’s brilliant acoustic playing, however, as he sets the pace for “Overcoat,” an intense contribution from guitarist Django Rowe, a fellow participant in the Kennedy Center’s renowned Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program. That’s followed by a tender trio rendition of Ahmad Jamal’s gorgeous “Tranquility,” after which the band expands to realize Whitaker’s own composition “Underground.” The piece blends a vibrant array of colors, with Figueroa’s percussion accents and Garo’s soaring flute added to Whitaker’s Moog and synth flavorings.
The Tyner influence emerges on a stormy trio rendition of the standard “Bernie’s Tune,” while a more elegant side of Whitaker’s talents is revealed on Billy Strayhorn’s “U.M.M.G.,” performed as a finely-tailored duet with Terry. Whitaker’s “Miss Michelle,” a dedication to his manager, melds Latin and R&B influences into a gently swaying dance, while the Latin inflections explode on Michel Camilo’s fiery “Caribe.”
Now Hear This is a perfect summation of Whitaker’s evolution to date. He’s enjoyed a remarkable career already, receiving the Harlem Stage Emerging Artist Award and the Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composers Award among other honors. His promise has only begun to be fulfilled, as he prepares to enter Juilliard as a freshman this fall as the first blind undergraduate student to join Juilliard’s Jazz Study program.
“This album is the next level for me,” Whitaker concludes. “I’m really happy and excited and hope people enjoy it.”
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