Over the last decade, few musicians have made the term “utility player” feel more like a compliment than guitarist Matthew Stevens. A trusted sideman to some of the leading lights of his generation, notably Esperanza Spalding and Christian Scott, he has been judicious about the pace and positioning of his solo career.
Consider the title of Stevens’ debut album, Woodwork, released in 2015. It’s a wink of sorts — acknowledging his overdue emergence as a leader — but also a nod to the skilled handiwork that goes into a trade like cabinetry, or joinery, or carving.
The sound of that album, which blended postbop agility with the texture and tonal character of indie-rock, suggested a manifesto of style. And Stevens refines that amalgam further on his captivating second album, Preverbal, due out on Ropeadope this spring.
Preverbal puts Stevens at the helm of a sturdy but supple rhythm section, with Vicente Archer on bass and Eric Doob on drums. The album incorporates a few new moves — some loopy sampling effects on a track called “Knowhow,” some additional drum programming on “Undertow” — but it relies first and foremost on the intuitive push and pull of the musicians. This music advances the ideals of modern jazz even when, sonically speaking, it gestures in other directions.
The opening track, “Picture Window,” is a case in point. Opening with a distant glow of synths and a dissonant, strobing pattern on acoustic guitar, it leads to a melody suffused with unhurried grandeur. Archer and Doob keep the motor humming at an unpredictable frequency, and Stevens reels off a calmly self-assured solo.
He’s not the sort of improviser to show you all of his cards, or even reveal his intentions: he prefers an air of alluring intrigue, down to the way the track ends, like a set of blinds snapping shut.
Stevens will preview material from Preverbal when he appears at HarlemStage on Feb. 18, as part of Christian Scott’s Stretch Music Festival. He’ll also play a double bill with Corey King at Nublu, on April 15. For more information, see his website.