CD: Out Of Nothing
Artist: Matteo Palmer
Although I’ve been playing the guitar for almost 50 years, after hearing Matteo Palmer, I may never play again. Just kidding of course, but it was sobering to realize that at the tender age of 17, Matteo is already a more accomplished guitarist than I will ever be, although our styles are different. And the fact is that he is not just good for someone his age, he is amazing for any age. If you heard his music without knowing how old he is, it would be hard to imagine that it wasn’t being played by someone who had developed that level of skill over a lifetime. Matteo’s debut release, Out Of Nothing, was brought to my attention personally by Grammy winning producer and Windham Hill Records founder Will Ackerman as something that I definitely needed to hear, and I’m I grateful that he did.
In a case of things coming full circle, Matteo was deeply influenced early on by Will’s own ground-breaking guitar music so it was a dream come true to have his first recording produced by Will at the world renown Imaginary Roads Studio in Vermont. Some of the finest musicians in the world have traveled great distances to record there over the years, although it was a shorter trip for Matteo, who lives in Vermont as well. And speaking of world class musicians, the album includes three tracks featuring the accompaniment of bassist Tony Levin who is known for his recording and touring with Peter Gabriel and King Crimson, as well as countless studio sessions with Will and others. It doesn’t get much better than that. Adding to the mix is Imaginary Roads studio engineer Tom Eaton of whom Matteo said: “He is a wizard, and I’m fairly certain he went to the Hogwarts School of Sound Engineering,” in a tongue in cheek reference to the Harry Potter stories.
Matteo’s love affair with the guitar began when he was just 8 years old. Although he started with an inexpensive electric guitar, at the age of 14, after attending a concert by Alex de Grassi, Matteo became enchanted by the sound of acoustic guitar and began exploring the music of other Windham Hill guitarists like Michael Hedges and Will Ackerman. A life changing opportunity came when he was 15 and reached out to Will to appear on a benefit show for the opera house in his local Vermont hometown. The two played a duet together and a relationship began that has led to the recording of Matteo’s debut album at Imaginary Roads Studio.
I am so glad that I got to see a video of Matteo playing the album’s opening track, “Journey Of The Wandering Minstrel,” (see below) as it gave me not only a greater appreciation of his guitar skills, but an insight into some of his technique that I might not have gotten by just listening to the audio of the track. For one, what sounds like the accompaniment of percussion is actually Matteo simultaneously slapping the body of the guitar in perfect rhythm with his fretwork. Another aspect that was revealed in the video was his impeccable use of two-handed tapping technique in certain sections. This is a style in which the left hand, rather than picking or strumming is actually tapping individual strings higher up on the fretboard while the right hand is fingering notes as usual. It’s a complex technique that was popularized on acoustic guitar by virtuoso innovator Michael Hedges, as well as in jazz by Stanley Jordan, and by Eddie Van Halen in rock. The piece evolved through rhythmic sections as well as more spacious ones, where Matteo’s notes give the impression of soft rain falling. This is also one of the tracks that includes Tony Levin on bass. By contrast, track two, “Autumn,” exhibits an elegant simplicity that creates a serene and contemplative space that’s easy to get lost in. More fancy fretwork follows on “Escaping Reality,” as Matteo almost creates the illusion of two guitars playing by tracing a pattern on the lower strings while engaging in intricate fingerstyle melodic structures that flow through various movements. The seed of the album’s title springs from a dreamy evocative piece called “Ex Nihilo,” which translates as “out of nothing.” And speaking of titles, there are some interesting ones such as the funky slow grooving “Ribbon Candy,” that reminded me a bit of John Mayer in places, as well as an up-tempo folky bluegrass-tinged tune called “Happy Pancakes.”
One of my favorite tunes was “Concetta,” a sweetly subtle piece that seemed to tell a story – although it is left to the imagination of the listener as to what that story is. The album closes with a track called “Sleepy Dog,” that exudes the mellow warmth and comfort of your canine companion dozing by the fireplace. One of the things I greatly appreciate about Matteo’s playing is that just because he has the ability to blow you away with his fretboard technique, he doesn’t always choose to, often taking a more understated approach and letting the guitar just create a mood. The same can be said for Tony Levin’s bass accompaniment on the three tracks he appears. While listening to Matteo’s music I was aware as much of the space between notes, as well as the notes and melodies themselves. To me, this musical perspective speaks of a creative maturity far beyond Matteo’s years. I also think this appreciation for understatement and acoustic music in pastel hues is a quality found in a number of Windham Hill artists over the years and has no doubt been an influence on this emerging young artist as well. Speaking to this point, I’ll leave the last words to Windham Hill founder, Will Ackerman: “”To be an artist you need to have something to say. No amount of technique alone will do much more than impress your neighbors. Matteo Palmer possesses a broad range of technical skills while having a profound and unique voice as an artist. He has a great deal to say. His pieces are not exercises in ego, but compositions of emotional depth employing skills learned and honed in order to be able to express himself eloquently as an artist. I have had the honor of working with some of the most influential guitarists in the latter part of the 20th century and feel utterly confident in saying that Matteo Palmer is the real deal. Out Of Nothing is simply the first opportunity to hear an important new voice in the world of steel string guitar. It certainly won’t be the last.”