Over the last couple of years, the young Belfast guitarist Mark McKnight has been quietly building on a stateside jazz education in New York and Boston, completed in 2006. Several European tours, appearances at a variety of festivals, including Montreux, and featured work with the RTÉ and Ulster Concert orchestras have allowed him to hone his craft and provide audiences with an opportunity to appreciate his impressive technique and rich, dark tone.
McKnight’s recording debut documents how successfully his development has proceeded. Recorded in New Jersey by the vastly experienced engineer Paul Wickliffe, Overnight features McKnight with a sympathetic and talented band of American and European musicians: Will Vinson on saxophones, pianist Sam Yahel, bassist Euan Burton, and Mark Ferber on drums. All compositions on the release, with the exception of a single standard, are McKnight’s. The writing is solid and sustained and allows the frontline space and impetus to contribute consistently interesting solos. Vinson is less angular than usual but bright and attacking nonetheless, especially on the title track and ‘A Time and a Place’. Yahel, who has recently shifted his focus from organ to piano, is not afraid to stretch the boundaries harmonically and knows how to back up the other soloists with unobtrusive touch. Ferber and Burton are rhythmically solid, with the drummer in particular offering sensitive support.
McKnight’s own playing has remarkable fluidity, with melody lines that are even and spacious and suited to each tune’s tempo. He has a cool, West Coast sound and knows when to ramp up and when to show restraint. In ‘Wait For It’ and ‘For the Longest Time’, he contributes singing, high-energy solos that contrast effectively with his gentler work on the de Paul/Raye ballad ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’ and the impressive album closer ‘Stay That Way’. Many of the tunes have memorable outros that benefit from Ferber’s dynamic drumming and from traded phrases between McKnight and Vinson that recall other notable guitar-saxophone partnerships, such as Kurt Rosenwinkel and Mark Turner.
All told, this recording charts a middle course that, while it lacks adventurousness at times, does produce a fine example of contemporary playing by a pick-up band. With plenty of work lined up for the year ahead in both Europe and the US, McKnight is well positioned to continue to gain the experience that will broaden his writing and further individualise his sound. He is a talent to keep an eye on.
Published on 1 August 2009
Kevin Stevens is is a Dublin-based novelist and writer on history, literature, and jazz.