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Steve Knight: Persistence (2022) Review

Steve Knight, originally from Olathe, has a new album out. Now a Chicagoan, Knight assembled a stellar jazz trio in Chicago. They played outdoor neighborhood concerts at the pandemic’s start, with everyone pretty much out of regular gig work.

This album has that to thank. A new artistic union was formed during the downtime, and you can hear it on this album, that cohesion, that strong collective group feel, a sense of trust: Knight on guitar, Justin Peterson on bass, and Jeff Stitely on drums. Knight grew up in our region. The road began at Emporia State: “Kansas was formative for me,” Knight said.

“But music wasn't much a part (of my life) until I moved to Emporia for (my) undergrad. I was a theatre major, but once they found out I could read music, and play guitar, I played in the pit orchestras and eventually got drafted into (Emporia State’s) big band. It's a smaller music program, so it afforded me lots of opportunities without which I wouldn't be here today. After grad school in Oklahoma and a stint as a theatre professor, I came back to Kansas, (and I) decided to focus on jazz as the thing, and crossed paths with (guitarist and director of jazz studies,) Dr. Wayne Goins at K-State. He's a legend in our field, both as a player and a scholar, and the time spent in his living room on Saturday afternoons set me up for everything I've been doing for the last 10 years, which has culminated in this debut release.”

And it’s an impressive album.

Knight fills the album with mainly originals, including the swift-moving burner of a tune entitled Chop Chop, where Knight provides momentum and melody and, in a few clicks it’s time: everyone solos. Peterson’s walking bass solo is energetic and grooves like a steady, long coal train, full of pull. As Knight said, one of his favorite moments on the album is drummer, Jeff Stitley’s spacious melodic solo on this tune.

One of my favorite moments is Jeff's drum solo on Chop Chop . . .Jeff comes in so quiet and spacious, proving what a mature and clever drummer, he is. Stitley came up in Chicago. He’s played with folks like Chick Corea and Wynton Marsalis. He later studied with drummer Victor Lewis, on his road, to coming into his own.

Stitley’s mastery and pedigree shows. Likely an homage to Art Blakey’s famous Blues March, Knight’s tune Art’s Rant trots along, Stitely supplying marching rolls and strings of accented eighth notes to pitter-patter along to, left-right, left-right, left. It swings. It’s sunny.

Knight captures that iconic tune’s spirit with his pen—and with his fingers across metal electric guitar strings. Knight sounds in complete control on this straight-forward, bright tune. It’s comforting. And, in Real Type Thing (subdued funk) the guitar leaves plenty of space for the drummer to respond. And he does: musically, melodically, cleverly—with quick riffs, asides, conversational duet moves. A shiner on the album is an instrumental arrangement of Tom Petty’s Mary Jane’s Last Dance. The tune has the lift and artfulness of Charlie Hunter’s instrumental version of Nirvana’s Come as You Are. This is masterful contemporizing work, taking the pop tunes of today (or yesterday) and giving them new breath, new lungs. Now that the pandemic is over, Knight is back at it, playing gigs, hitting the road: “I'm currently (and likely forever) located in Chicago,” Knight said, “and play out as often as possible in venues as varied as could be. Last night I was in a local brewery, tonight I'm playing happy hour at a theatre, tomorrow I'm in Geneva, IL as a guest of a super fun trio, Sunday I'm in the park across the street from my house. It's a great life in that you're always seeing new places, meeting new people.” Although based in Chicago, Knight’s KC roots run deep, and likely he’ll be playing out from his new album in our town soon. Knight said, “The best part of returning to Kansas is playing with people I came up with and were formative to me—Dr. Goins in Manhattan; Bob Haselhuhn, one of the guys in Emporia that helped me get off the ground 20 years ago - he actually called Stella on a gig and just wiped the floor with me on it. I'm hoping that the album release will open up some opportunities to play in KC as a professional for the first time.” Come hear Knight, when he comes back to town. And, in the meantime, get his album. (For one, it’s on Spotify.)

—Kevin Rabas

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