The debut album by one of Kansas City’s reigning guitar titans, Matt Hopper, was long overdue. First Love is a stunning showcase of Hopper’s characteristic soulful clarity, crystalline guitar sound, and deep command of the vernacular of a wide breadth of influences. Long a relatively unheralded hero in the bands of local pros including Eddie Moore, Everette DeVan, and Chris Hazelton, Hopper’s turn in the leader’s spotlight is the welcome arrival of a mature, self-assured improvisational and compositional voice.
Hopper’s moody solo introduction to the title track shows the UMKC-bred guitarist’s affinity for current masters like Jonathan Kriesberg and Kurt Rosenwinkel, but gives way to a Latin groove-oriented slow jam with straight-forward functional harmony. Here, Hopper brandishes his deeply secure and inviting rhythmic feel along with his command of concise melodic statements that appear heavily informed by Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery. Drummer Kevin Frazee and B3 organist Ken Lovern’s agreeable accompaniment are a testament to the strong rapport they have developed through their frequent gigs at the Green Lady Lounge. Frazee’s discriminating solo on the out chorus vamp shows off the drummer’s keen sense of tasteful restraint. Hopper pays homage to the aforementioned Montgomery on his original Song for Wes, a minor blues with infectious rhythmic hits. His use of the full range of the guitar, with preference for middle to low, along with his adroit use of octaves, is straight out of the playbook of the man who inspired the tune. Lovern’s solo turn is highlighted by a string of sanguine triplet figures, and gives way to Frazee again delivering a cleverly constructed solo.
The trio’s unique take on Jimmy Van Heusen’s classic ballad Darn That Dream is in a surprising 6/4, which spawns some fresh playing from the group over a well-worn chestnut. My Ideal is the other standard on the album, delivered in 12/8. Lovern stylishly opts for a straightforward chordal solo, and Hopper brings it home with a satisfyingly consonant turn, peppered with strong bop and blues-tinged language.
First Love is destined to be a jazz radio success with its identifiable melodies and amiable solo statements, and continues a recent trend of skillfully recorded albums by artists appearing regularly at the Green Lady Lounge. For Kansas City jazz fans who prefer the intersection of quality playing with easily digestible aesthetics, Matt Hopper has struck a pleasing balance.
—Michael Shults (December 2015 – January 2016, Jazz Ambassador Magazine)
Personnel: Matt Hopper, guitar; Ken Lovern, organ; Kevin Frazee, drums
Tracks: Green Lady Low Down; Song for Wes; Heartbreak Hurts; Set Your Fears Aside; First Love; Straight Chill/n; Darn That Dream; My Ideal.
Produced by Matt Hopper, Ken Lovern and Chad Meise. Recording Engineer: Ken Lovern. Mastering Engineer: Collin Jordan at The Boiler Room. Mix Engineer: Chad Meisee