By: Matt Warnock
Michigan has had a rough go of things in recent years. The economy has taken a pounding and the State has become the poster child for the struggling middle class as America moves into the new century. But, regardless of what the unemployment rate is, how many jobs GM just cut from their factories or where the State budget is going, Michigan has always managed to produce new and exciting music and some of the best musicians in the nation. Bassist, composer and arranger Tom Knific is just such an artist. The Western Michigan University jazz studies faculty member has consistently produced solid recordings of hard-swinging, heavy groovin’ jazz throughout his long and successful career as a performer and recording artist. His latest album, The Muse, is no exception as it showcases all of the things that have made Knific the premier bassist in the Wolverine State for going on two decades.
As with any Knific release there are plenty of heavy hitters on board for this album, which was recorded between February 2009 and March of 2010. The talented bassist is joined by jazz piano legend Fred Hersch, whose contributions on tunes such as “A Bridge for Mostar” and “The Muse” is absolutely breathtaking. There are few pianists alive today that can control a melody and wring as much emotion out of a single note as Hersch, and it’s for these reasons that he’s must have been an easy choice for this recording. As well, veteran drummer Keith Hall and percussionist Jamey Haddad are featured on several tracks on the album. Hall is at his best as he drives the groove home on “1-18” and lays back in the pocket on “That Day in May,” both of which are standouts on a highlight filled record. Haddad joins the ensemble for the Eastern influenced “The Muezzin of Goreme,” and his added percussion, along with Knific’s bowed bass line, is just what that song needs to reach its maximum potential.
Being the experienced educator that he is, Knific also realizes the energy and creativity that having younger, up and coming musicians around the studio can bring to any session, and on this recording there are plenty of Young Lions that rise to the occasion when called upon. Saxophonist Chris Beckstrom, vocalists Mark Jackson and Taylor O’Donnell, drummer Ryan Andrews and pianist John Knific (Tom’s son), all perform admirably throughout the record. It is this mixture of veteran jazzers and young performers that makes this album so successful. There is never any chance for the music to become stale or stagnant, every song brings with it a new combination of players, a fresh outlook on the piece and a renewed improvisational vigor, resulting in a killer record that shouldn’t be missed by any modern jazz fan.
Knific is at the top of his game on The Muse. Whether he’s walking a bassline behind a swingin’ piano solo, plucking a staccato run or bowing a smooth melodic phrase, the bassist is always in tune, deep in the pocket and right there with the perfect note for the occasion. There are few bassists who can move between the classical and jazz worlds with the ease that Knific possesses, and this control over his instrument, highly-tuned ears and in-depth musical knowledge permeate every line he plays. As well, his ability as an arranger shines through on the two Beatles tunes that are featured on the record, “Blackbird” and “If I Fell.” By adding these two classic tracks Knific expands his audience by reaching out to fans of classic rock, bringing them in and then exposing them to the sophisticated jazz that illuminates the rest of the album.
The Muse will make a welcomed addition to the library of any modern jazz fan, or for those listeners who are looking to expand their jazz collection beyond the standard performers. The songs are well written, creatively arranged and the performers are absolutely captivating, everything a jazz album needs to stand the test of time.