Album review: Untranslatable (Matthew Sheens) by Ian Patterson

Matthew Sheens Untranslateable

Untranslatable, Matthew Sheens (ABC Music)
Released: August 2014
Review by Ian Patterson

Matthew Sheens UntranslateableWith his impressive debut Every Eight Seconds (Self Produced, 2012) garnering universally positive reviews, Australian-born, New York-based pianist Matthew Sheens returns with an even meatier, juicier follow-up. Every Eight Seconds introduced an original composer, one whose melodic and rhythmic ideas championed narrative over virtuosity. There’s perhaps more of Sheens the Downbeat poll-winning pianist this time out but significantly Untranslatable ups the ante compositionally, with the Yanni Burton String Quartet leaving an indelible stamp on a third of the tracks.

This isn’t jazz with strings either, for Sheens’ sophisticated string arrangements for two violins, viola, cello and double bass add a visceral edge–in addition to lush buoyancy–to these engaging contemporary compositions.

The riffing strings that announce the title track, alternate between urgent motif and warm, sustained lines. Drummer Kenneth Salters and bassist Linda Oh inject rhythmic elasticity, laying the path for Sheens dancing, right-handed solo. Teasingly brief, this episodic miniature – bold and lyrical – hints at more engaging narratives to come. Strings and piano trio also combine to graceful effect on the melodically striking ‘Adriana’s Song’, with Salter’s poppish beat conveying mainstream accessibility.

As on his debut release Sheens employs vocalist Sara Serpa, who brings her wordless, horn-like lines to a handful of tunes. On the atmospheric vocal/piano duet ‘L’Arlesienne (The Girl from Arles)’ Serpa’s crystalline melodies soar and gently glide like a Kenny Wheeler score. On ‘Wabi Sabi’ singer Michael Mayo joins Serpa in flowing unison, with guitarist Mike Moreno and Sheens intermittently boosting the chorus. It’s a delightful, cinematic tune that marries the romanticism of Burt Bacharach and the dynamism of Pat Metheny.

The hugely influential Boston guitarist’s DNA also colors ‘Dépaysement’; Serpa, Moreno and Sheens weave cheery overlapping lines over Rogerio Boccato’s shuffling percussion before the guitarist carves out an elegant solo, with Sheens immediately following suit. In the end, however, it’s Serpa’s wonderfully lilting melody that sticks in the memory. In tandem with Sheens, the Portuguese singer also seduces on ‘Alfonsina y el Mar’ – Ariel Ramírez/Félix Luna’s heart-rending ode to Argentinian poet Alfonsina Stori, who committed suicide in 1938.

Two brief piano/Rhodes interludes serve as palette cleansers, but in just one and two minutes respectively Sheens weaves a little minimalist magic, with damped piano strings and judicious use of effects evoking the artistry of German prepared piano maestro Hauschka. Strings underpin the joyously dramatic ‘Madrugada’, a vaguely Latin-tinged, percussion-driven orchestration that features an extended rally between Sheens and Oh, plus another finely crafted intervention from Moreno.

Sheen’s ‘Translate from My Heart’ and the classic ‘Old Devil Moon’ both feature the stylish Mayo. The pianist’s inventive arrangement on the original provides a bold frame for Mayo that contrasts with the spare, piano-cum-vocal setting of the Burton Lane/E.Y. Hamburg jazz standard.

Sheens has really hit his stride on Untranslatable, a consistently satisfying effort that purveys melody and adventure at the same time. The signposts indicate that Sheens could push off from here in any number of directions, towards contemporary classical music or experimental solo piano; jazz, in the second decade of the twenty first century, seems increasingly able to accommodate it all. Whichever path or paths Sheens chooses to go down it’ll be a journey well worth following.


Matthew Sheens – piano, Rhodes
Sara Serpa – vocals
Michael Mayo – vocals
Mike Moreno – guitar
Linda Oh – bass
Kenneth Salters – drums
Rogerio Boccato – percussion
Stefani Collins – violin
Francesca Dardani – violin
Yumi Oshima – viola
Hiro Matsuo – cello
Yanni Burton – double bass



Matthew Sheens on the web