Piano prodigy to open a long-awaited Music Fest summer season
Matthew Whitaker, 20, dubbed ‘the future’ of classical music
The Aspen Music Festival and School is opening its 2021 season with the genre-hopping jazz musician and piano prodigy Matthew Whitaker on Thursday night, signaling an embrace of the future over staid formal traditions.
Who: Pianist Matthew Whitaker
Where: Benedict Music Tent
When: Thursday, July 1, 7 p.m.
How much: $75
“Part of why we put him first was to signal that this is where we think music is going,” Music Fest president and CEO Alan Fletcher said Tuesday.
Whitaker’s recital Thursday evening will mark the first live Aspen Music Fest performance since the coronavirus pandemic led to the cancellation of 2020’s summer season and the winter 2021 in-person concerts.
Whitaker made his Aspen debut at age 16 in late March 2018 at the JAS Café at the Little Nell. At those intimate jazz-based shows, Whitaker led a trio and mostly played Hammond B-3 organ, the instrument that first brought him to national prominence at age 10 and earned Whitaker his first endorsement at age 13.
He’s a young master as well on the piano, keyboard and melodica. As he put it during that visit, Whitaker will play “anything with black and white keys.”
Fletcher said he and the Music Fest programming team are excited by Whitaker’s ability to bridge style and genre. Classically trained, Whitaker’s Music Fest program is expected to include straight ahead classical compositions with flourishes of improvisation and some of Whitaker’s original pieces.
“I would call it a wonderful hybrid of what I think the future is for classical music,” Fletcher said, “which is opening a lot of doors.”
Still just 20 years old, Whitaker has spent a decade working among the highest echelon of musicians. At 10 he opened for Stevie Wonder at the music legend’s induction into the Apollo Theater Hall of Fame. Like Wonder, Whitaker was born blind and like Wonder he grew into a teen music phenomenon who has earned support in purist circles and in the wider popular culture (as signified by his viral 2017 performance on “Ellen”).
Whitaker is creatively omnivorous, playing organ in his New Jersey church, playing gospel and jazz, classical and Latin music, playing R&B and experimenting with avant-garde out-of-time jazz. Oh, and he’s also a world-class jazz drummer.
Whitaker titled his 2017 debut album “Outta the Box,” he said, because he does not want to define himself to a single musical tradition. Whitaker has found himself at home on classical stages like the Benedict and Carnegie Hall as well as jazz clubs and pop venues.
“I haven’t played reggae yet,” he added with a laugh. “Or country.”
But don’t count him out from venturing there.
“Whatever I feel,” he said. “If I want to do old school, I’ll do old school, or if I want to do more modern or classical – whatever is in my head I’ll play.”
He pointed to the organist Dr. Lonnie Smith and Jimmy Smith and pianists Ahmad Jamal, Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson as his primary influences, calling Peterson’s “Hymn to Freedom” his favorite song.
“My favorite genre is jazz because it allows you to be you,” he said. “You can do whatever you want, you can be yourself musically, whereas in other styles you need to play what’s on the paper or in the recording.”
Last week, Whitaker released the new single “Stop Fighting,” an original composition inspired by the murder of George Floyd and the uprising that followed in summer 2020. It progresses from a beautiful piano melody, backed by flute, strings and light drums, into a jarring march of literal foot-stomps and soaring synthesizer strokes. It’s the first song to be released from Whitaker’s forthcoming third album, “Connections,” due out in August.
“I am a musician, who happens to be blind,” Whitaker said in the album announcement. “I have been blessed with a God-given gift and my prayer is that I can continue to be a blessing and inspiration to others.”
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