“The only unique thing about me is me – I’m the only one. The hard part, the part I’m still trying to live up to with integrity, is feeling like that’s enough. Everyone is searching for their own voice – I certainly am. But the further down the road I get, the more I conclude (and am encouraged by the elders in our music who say the same thing) that my sound is already there and I’m just trying to get out of the way.”Steve Knight
Persistence – The 2022 debut CD Release from Jazz Guitarist Steve Knight, is one that he is immensely proud of and rightly so.
Jazz Guitar Life’s Dr. Wayne Goins reached out to his former student to learn more about the new album and to gain some insight into what makes Steve Knight the talent that he is. Enjoy 🙂
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JGL: How did you start playing guitar?
SK: I started playing guitar around 12 years old when I traded my skateboard for a Synsonics JCPenney guitar with a built-in, 9 volt-powered speaker. It was quite righteous-sounding playing ‘Smoke on the Water.’
JGL: How/when did you start becoming interested in jazz guitar?
SK: I heard jazz in high school but was more interested in playing Clapton songs at parties than doing any work. When I went to college at Emporia State University in Kansas I got drafted into playing in pit orchestras for musicals. After a few of those, and being a guitar player that could read, I started playing with the big band and combos for the music department. Flash forward ten or so years and I met you—Dr. Wayne Goins—who opened my eyes and ears to the true, lifelong pursuit of the art form.
JGL: Who are your influences?
SK: These questions tend to bring out the cavalcade of answers everyone already knows—but I’ll dance too. The first time I heard a guitar player that really moved me to want to play jazz like him was Russell Malone on Live at the Bistro w/ Benny Green. I heard their take on Paul Chambers’ ‘Tale of the Fingers’ on a late-night NPR jazz show and was gobsmacked – I went out and bought the record at a Borders (just aged myself for sure). As I started to listen and collect influences, I found that there’s something to be learned and gleaned from everyone. It might be easier to list musical values and then the players I associate with them: I love the athleticism of Pat Martino, the melodic development and subtlety of Jim Hall and Peter Bernstein, the beboppy flow of Jimmy Raney, the never-faltering blues influence of Kenny Burrell and Ed Cherry, the linear freedom and pop song cum jazz arrangements of Dave Stryker and Bobby Broom, and every single note, phrase, bend, and sweep of Wes Montgomery and George Benson.
JGL: You’ve lived in lots of places – what brought you to Chicago? Will you stay?
SK: I moved to Chicago in 2016; it’s my favorite place of any I’ve ever lived. My wife and I moved from New York looking for a more affordable location that could still employ us both and meet our cultural and entertainment needs. Chicago has all the art, food, and public transit of a big city while still having a neighborhood-y, Midwestern vibe that I crave.
JGL: Two pop songs on the album – why was that important?
SK: Pop songs are closely tied to the history of jazz – we just don’t always see/hear it that way. Miles Davis’ recorded ‘If I Were a Bell’ on Prestige’s Relaxin’ in 1956 – just 6 years after it debuted in the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls in 1950 and won best musical. We think of this as a jazz standard now but at the time it was part of the cultural and musical zeitgeist, especially given the smaller footprint of tv and radio with far less diversity of offerings than we enjoy today. That’s equivalent to me recording a song from the musical Hamilton today. Bobby Broom, as mentioned previously as a huge influence, regularly plays and arranges pop tunes to great effect. To me, I’m always aspiring to make jazz accessible to a modern audience, so doing pop songs accomplishes that while also keeping one foot in the jazz tradition.
JGL: ‘Cisco’ is the only jazz cover – why this tune specifically?
SK: Pat Martino, a major influence on so many jazz guitar players who crossed his path, died in November of 2021. That loss was still on my mind when we went into the studio in January of 2022 and recorded that piece—it’s one we play live often, as a kind of warm-up that turned into something we really like. Pat Martino changed the landscape of our music and it’s an honor to play one of his tunes on my debut album.
JGL: How did you meet these two sidemen and why did you choose to record with them?
SK: I met bassist Justin Peterson at a jam session soon after moving to Chicago in 2016. Because we were both new in Chicago, we didn’t know anyone and started playing together just to keep fit and get reps. In the following years he’s become a constant collaborator and a dear friend. Justin’s playing is adventurous and swinging without ever making himself more important than the song or the other musicians. He’s got a poetic soul and his melodic solos are always a breath of fresh air. Jeff Stitely is a Chicago legend who I met, strangely enough, through Justin.
During the pandemic we started an outdoor jazz series in my backyard, as did many great artists in Chicago, and Jeff signed on to play and keeps returning my calls for some reason. He has a propulsive approach that always serves the varied musical and compositional environments we endeavor to explore. He swings like mad, comps in a supportive fashion while still egging on the soloist, and is a delight of a human being. I feel very lucky to get to play with these guys – truly blessed.
JGL: What’s distinct and unique about your approach in both playing and teaching?
SK: As a player and a teacher, like all of us, I’m the sum of all my influences. Unlike everyone else, my ratios are unique – what percentage of George Benson to Dave Rawlings to Bill Evans to Jimmy Page to Jim Hall to Tony Rice am I? I’m always encouraging students to voraciously consume content – to fill up the well of their inspiration. The only unique thing about me is me – I’m the only one. The hard part, the part I’m still trying to live up to with integrity, is feeling like that’s enough. Everyone is searching for their own voice – I certainly am. But the further down the road I get, the more I conclude (and am encouraged by the elders in our music who say the same thing) that my sound is already there and I’m just trying to get out of the way. I’m trying to live in the moment, play what I hear, and fall in love with those notes and sounds.
JGL: Tell me about your gear…
SK: I feel lucky to play two world class guitars that both inspire me and humble me: a custom Benedetto 16B which I’ve had for almost ten years now, and a Collings i30LC which I’ve had for about 18 months. Bob’s crew in Savannah is making the best archtops in the world and I’m lucky to be included among their artists. The i30, a newer axe for me, comes closest to the Grant Green tone I hear in my head as being ideal for jazz guitar. I’ve messed around with amps for years but have finally come to terms with the fact that I like the responsiveness and cut of a solid state amp. As such, I have a Henriksen Bud 10 for quieter gigs and a Fender Tone Master Twin Reverb for louder affairs.
JGL: How would you describe the current state of jazz and how this album contributes to that?
SK: The one unifying factor of jazz, the “I dare you” that Wayne Shorter refers to, is alive and well. Fans of jazz, though perhaps fewer than top 40 pop music, are highly devoted. Musicians, not getting into it for the money, really pursue the truth they hear. The access to and ubiquity of home recording technology has expanded our music exponentially. Post Modern Jukebox, Snarky Puppy, and Wulfpeck are drawing huge crowds and interpreting our music in new and exciting ways. It’s an exciting time to be putting my own drop into the bucket of this music that I love so much.
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