I have never heard a solo piano record quite like Matt Blair’s. The alum, who graduated last year, began the process of creating this album while still an undergrad, composing the pieces and debuting selections at his senior recital last spring. Produced by Dave King of The Bad Plus, it stands out in two ways – as a record that exhibits tremendous starkness and as a document of Blair’s transition out of the Lawrence music scene.
Musically and sonically, “Shadow Sets” sets itself apart from other solo jazz piano forays because of its overall sensibility. Throughout, silence and a delicate touch had me at the edge of my seat, with dense masses of energy between each of the ideas. Many of its eight tracks were subdued in their slower tempos which contain lots of space, but this often led to a tense, unsettling mood rather than a tranquil one. King’s production helped these vibes blossom even more, the sound of the mechanics from the piano seeping into the warmness of analog tape with its perfections and imperfections. “Shadow Sets” is a testament to how much of a role the aesthetics of production and recording play in the final work. In Blair’s case, the production was a way to differentiate his album using other aspects besides solely the music.
The debut album also holds a lot of weight in the context of its creation, as it bridges the gap between his undergrad music studies and his career as a freelance musician directly after. While conceived at Lawrence, the idea for “Shadow Sets” made a huge leap forward with the addition of King to its process; King is a huge influence of Blair’s. Even separated from the music that fills it, “Shadow Sets” represents the accelerated journey Blair is on and how quickly he has made an impact in the world and music scene that is so near and dear to his heart. With the background and music together, the record is a pure, captivating snapshot of Blair jumping from his foundation.
Purchase the album in digital or physical formats here: mattblair.bandcamp.com/releases/.
Live at Lawrence University
Matt Blair was scheduled to play a set as part of the 602 Club’s concert, THAW: Sounds To Leave The Winter Blues Behind. Ironically, the concert was cancelled due to the blizzard. Stuck in Appleton and still wanting to play, an off-campus house hosted him, pulling together an impromptu show of Blair on Fender Rhodes/electronics, seniors Nathan Montgomery on guitar/vocals and Adam Friedman on percussion/electronics, and yours truly on guitar/electronics. While Blair’s solo set was the centerpiece and reason for the whole concert, the short sets combined with his to create a unique atmosphere that has been, for the most part, non-existent these past couple of years. It avoided the party ambiance, but it also avoided the more formal aspects of performances in Harper Hall and the like, leaving the musicians and audience with a laid-back space between environments which complimented the music well, and vice versa.
While “Shadow Sets” was recorded solely with acoustic piano, Blair’s tour had him on an alternate setup of both Fender Rhodes and amplified chimney sweep through a pedalboard. The change in palette allowed him to explore new dimensions of his playing and compositions that he has been immersed in live since their premiere. The opening piece immediately showed this recent development. Thick swaths of distorted frequencies coated the living room for most of it, with another section composed of harmonic scrapes and squeaks coming from Piezo contact mics adhered to various parts of the Rhodes. While this partially improvised soundscape created a much different context than the record, it fed well into the rest of the set made up of three tunes from the album as well as an untitled new composition. The live rendition of the title track had an improvisatory element with Blair incorporating the unexpectedly warm sound of the chimney sweep into the resonant grittiness of the Rhodes.
For the other pieces, the Rhodes’ character and timbre brought his writing into a new place – for example, the song “I wish it were august again” became a bit more jolting and unpredictable. Its two simple ideas, dripping with buzzing frequencies, were hardly discernible when not presented on an acoustic piano. A new dimension of his compositions also came through in his decisions to heavily affect the Rhodes with pedals or to focus on its sound alone. While the former abstracted his writing to the point where moments sounded completely new and separate from their original live recordings, both the effects and the latter maintained the restrained and haunting spirit that he had previously evoked with his music. There was deviation within static. It is always an influential experience hearing how an artist translates their past work and studio sound into a new live set, and Blair’s recent tour was no exception. For future shows, visit his calendar at mattblairmusic.net/calendar/.