Reviewed by Chris Cody, April 1st, 2015
It’s not very often one discovers a young pianist who impresses you with his technique, compositions, arrangements and ambition. Adelaide’s US-based Matthew Sheens satisfies in all these areas.
His music is very well arranged, with well thought out and structured compositions usually comprising many different sections, layers of melody, counterpoint, and interweaving rhythms. There are diverse classical influences and a little Brad Mehldau in the writing and playing, normal enough for a young composer and pianist still developing his own voice and it will be interesting to follow Sheens’ evolution.
The album is beautifully recorded at Systems Two Studios, Brooklyn, with a rich and broad piano sound and good balance between close miking and reverb capturing well the tone and harmonics of the piano. I also like the drum sound that has been closely picked up, with a snare as dry and crisp as a cicada on a summer’s day.
Sheens’ compositions reveal a wide range of classical, jazz, and Latin influences. The festive Fala Ingles features an enjoyable piano /drums duo with the drummer using his hands on the drums, good syncopations, piano octaves, and technical prowess that is joyous and uplifting. There is a very good balance between the writing and the more exuberant improvisation.
Death on A Sunny Day is a duo for piano and clarinet that is through-written in a very classical style, and Sheens sounds very at ease in the duo sections here and elsewhere on the album with prepared accompaniment figures and ideas. The piece could have perhaps benefited from a section with more contrasting space and gravitas.
It Might As Well Be Spring has some surprising changes in style, tempo and harmonies with romantic piano arpeggios that become increasingly dense, and busy, underscoring the words in unusual and original ways. It’s fascinating to hear how Sheens treats this well known standard.
Chernobyl begins with the mystery of a Shostakovich prelude, and alternates between solo piano and trio sections. This piece is the longest piece on the album at around 9 minutes and features the longest piano improvisation but perhaps meanders a little, without ever returning to the mystery and impact of the beginning.
The Anesthetic of Familiarity is toccata-like, Sheens showing good independence of hands, and doubling left hand piano with the double bass lines. Cringe Culture is also very much like an etude with early 20th century French references, lots of fairly fast repeated notes, for piano and clarinet again in a very classical and written style.
Sheens is clearly a gifted and fluent pianist and composer, very meticulous in his preparation, rehearsal, playing and writing. His playing is tight, clean, and virtuosic, using many different piano techniques, with references ranging from various classical styles, to Latin or even Asian gamelan. His music would be even richer if he were to take a little more risk in his ideas and improvisation. He could underplay his hand at times, writing and playing more simply to better allow the meaning and emotion of his music to emerge, giving the listener some air. Yet to reach 30 years of age, he shows talent and potential in buckets and has a very promising future.
VIEW AND LISTEN: http://www.matthewsheens.com/#!music-page/c1s78