(Courtesy Photo)

If you haven’t heard jazz musician Matthew Whitaker play the piano, hurry, and download any of his recordings and prepare to have your heart lifted and get carried away.  Whitaker, 20, a true prodigy more than lives up to his moniker, jazz phenom.

His expert play of the piano, the Hammond organ, and drums, just to name a few of the many instruments that he plays, will simply enthrall you.  Whitaker has astounded audiences around the world since age 11, and he is bringing his impressive talents to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa.

When you listen to Whitaker’s music, you will instinctively surmise that he must have been a child prodigy.   What might surprise you is that this gifted musician was born premature and without sight. Doctors told his parents, Moses and May Whitaker of Hackensack, NJ, that he would never walk or talk, and he was given less than a  50 percent chance of survival.

“At three-years of age, Matthew was able to play Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star with both hands and without a single piano lesson,” said Moses, his father.

Whitaker’s musicianship is so other worldly that his brain is being studied by neuroscientists who want to understand the mechanics of such a gifted mind.  The L.A. Sentinel and Whitaker talked about his musical journey and upcoming performance at the Segerstrom.

L.A. Sentinel: How is life on the road after being away from live audiences?

Matthew Whitaker:  I’m loving it!  Performing in front of audiences, the overall vibe is so much fun.  Being able to play with my band is so great.

LAS:  Your latest album, Connections is just fantastic! What does the title mean to you?

MW:  Connections is about the connection I have with other artists and their connections with me.  The goal was to get together with other artists that I had worked with in the studio and see what we could do together.

LAS:  One of the songs that you cover on the album is Stevie Wonder’s Lately and you certainly make it your own.  What made you cover that song?

MW:  I’ve been playing that song since I was about eight or nine, so I’ve been playing it for a while now.  And I thought, why not just put it on the album.

(Courtesy photo)

LAS:   You opened for Stevie Wonder at the famous Apollo Theater when you were just ten years old.  Did he offer you any advice?

MW:  Yes, he told me to “just be you”!

LAS: Good advice and straight to the point, right? (Laughter)

MW:  Yes…yes…(Laughter)

LAS:  You play the Hammond organ on many of your songs.  For many who were raised in the Black church, the Hammond organ is a familiar instrument.  On your jazz tours, do you feel that you are introducing many in the audience to this instrument?

MW:  I believe that I am, but I also feel that I am introducing the piano as well.  I don’t have a favorite instrument, I love them all, so it thrills me that I get to play and introduce different instruments.  I especially love how expressive the organ is and what you can do with it.

LAS: You have interpreted two powerful songs of faith on your albums, His Eye is on the Sparrow and The Blood Will Never Loose Its Power.  How does your faith inform your music?

MW:  He [God] leads me every step of the way.  I’m really just following Him.  And even if people said, no, we are not putting it on the record.  I say, hey, we are doing it no matter what.

LAS:  The emotion in your music is ever present.  Listening to you play  songs like Tranquility, Emotions, and Flow, – you play them so beautifully, and it causes the listener to experience a myriad of emotions.  Do you get impacted by music in that way?

MW:  Oh yes, definitely.  Music really does that, and I wrote Emotions as an expression of those feelings that you can get from music.

LAS: You got to work with Jon Batiste on Connections, tell me about that?

MW:  Oh, my goodness!  It was an amazing experience.  I’ve known him since I was nine-years- old, and I’ve always wanted to work with him in the studio environment.  We have done sessions with two pianos before, so it was easy for us to get in the groove.

LAS:  Your story is so inspiring and you’re so young.  I can’t ask what you would tell your younger self, but I can ask you about your dreams for the future.

MW:  I want to do more film scoring which I recently did for Hulu. I scored the film Starkeisha, and there will also be a documentary about the making of the movie, and I did all the music for that as well.  That documentary is coming out on my birthday, April 3rd.  I also want to get into music directing.

LAS:  Happy early birthday!  Do you have a favorite place to perform yet?

MW:  You know not yet.  Everyone is great wherever we have gone.

LAS:  Will this be your first time performing at the Segerstrom in Costa Mesa?

MW:  Yes, it will be, and I am really looking forward to it.  I hope that everyone has a really great time enjoying the music and will really have a lot of fun.

Matthew Whitaker performs at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, in Costa Mesa, on Sunday, March 27.  For ticket information, visit www.scfta.org