© 2024 WBGO
Discover Jazz...Anywhere, Anytime, on Any Device.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Matthew Whitaker Confronts Racial Injustice on the First Single From His Sweeping New Album, 'Connections'

Pianist Matthew Whitaker, whose new album is titled 'Connections'
Rahil Ashruff
Pianist Matthew Whitaker, whose new album is titled 'Connections'

Last summer, as many communities across America saw the cloistered quiet of a pandemic lockdown give way to the chants of marching protesters, Matthew Whitaker took everything in. "It just seemed like it was too much," he recalls, thinking back to that pressurized time. But as an artist, the moment led him toward new expressions.

Whitaker, a pianist and organist whose remarkable resilience inspired a recent profile on 60 Minutes, channeled the turmoil and its hopeful resolution into a composition called "Stop Fighting." It's the first available track from his forthcoming album, Connections, and it premieres today at WBGO.

Connections finds Whitaker stretching out as a keyboardist and bandleader, and its title refers in part to its collaborative bond: his fellow pianist Jon Batiste is among the album's guests (on Thelonious Monk's "Bye-Ya"), and so is violinist Regina Carter (Duke Ellington's "Don't Get Around Much Anymore"). Whitaker also welcomes regular partners like bassist Endea Owens and drummers Johnathan Blake and Otis Brown III.

Toward the end of the title track, Whitaker can be heard reflecting on "Stop Fighting," which comes next in the album sequence. "I feel that 'Stop Fighting' is really about: why all the negativity in the world?" he says, his voice cracking. "Why are we shooting each other? Why are we abusing each other? Why are we bullying each other? Just stop."

This week I posed several questions to Whitaker, about "Stop Fighting" and what it represents for him. That brief email exchange follows below.

Matthew Whitaker performs a concert at the Gateway Center for WBGO's 40th Anniversary, on April 3, 2019.
Jonathan Chimene
Matthew Whitaker performs a concert at the Gateway Center for WBGO's 40th Anniversary, on April 3, 2019.

There's a heavy emotional subtext to "Stop Fighting," and I would love to hear more about translating those feelings into sound. Was it a new process for you?

I composed “Stop Fighting” last year, in 2020. There was so much going on with the pandemic as we were separated from our loved ones and our normal activities. Some people were fighting over wearing masks and about businesses having to close to keep us safe. Then we were dealing with the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so much political unrest. It just seemed like it was too much.

The song can be thought of in three parts: The first part is a journey through the lives of all those impacted by injustice. I wanted to honor them by telling their stories through music and celebrating their lives. There is a lightness to the first section. Beautiful piano melody, strings, flute and percussion capturing the rhythms of their journeys through life.

The middle section represents tension and dealing with conflict. This is where you find racism, the injustices. The tone of the song changes to more synthesizers and heavier drums. The song continues to build. There is actual stomping, which we recorded during the studio session, representing the protests and the marches that have been present in the African American community for so many years.

The last section emerges with a sense of victory. I did not want the piece to end in conflict. I want the piece to represent what we are dealing with today, but to also have the strength to inspire us to keep marching and to keep demanding justice and equality. In the end, our hope is to finally have peace.

I'm intrigued by the command in the title, because it seems to run counter to the protest urge. How did you land on "Stop Fighting" — and is that instruction directed toward, as they say, both sides?

Rahil Ashruff

The command relates to us coming together as a human race. It is meant as a call to stop fighting one another. To stop the police brutality, stop the bullying, stop the injustice and negativity going on in the world. “Stop Fighting” is directed towards all those that oppress and promote division among us. Let's stop fighting and focus our energy on building all of us. I believe we can do better.

Finally, the vibe of this song seems to signal a new direction in your musical expression. I hear that elsewhere on Connections too. What is the statement you feel you're making?

The people on the album are amazing musicians but most of all they have such a special place in my life, my development as a musician and as a human being. When we went in the studio, it was at a time when people were beginning to get the COVID-19 vaccine. We were beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel. Most of us had not performed in front of a live audience or seen each other in over a year. There was a sense of gratefulness to have the opportunity to be in that space with each other for a few days and in that time. We also had Derrick [Hodge] encouraging us to feel free to express ourselves and trust our instincts.

The vibe of the album comes from a place of pure creativity and honest expression; not holding back feelings, but being able to express those feelings through music. The song “Connections” for example was created right in studio with Jon [Batiste], and I was just connecting musically and spontaneously expressing the feelings during that specific time.

Matthew Whitaker's Connections will be released in August.

Nate Chinen