Steve Knight

Jazz For People
Steve Knight
Steve Knight: Harvey Tillis.

Chicago resident Steve Knight’s first album, Persistence, takes listeners back to the days of warm jazz-guitar tones, popular tunes, group interaction, and feel. With inspired accompaniment from drummer Jeff Stitely and bassist Justin Peterson, Knight intersects hard bop, pop, and the blues. Persistence is an intimate record; more importantly, there’s joy, exquisite use of space, and alluring harmonic sophistication.

Were there specific themes you wanted to explore with Persistence?
I wanted the album to be a sample of what it sounds like to come out to see us live. There are a lot of projects out there where they’re really excited to make the music of someone else, but that’s not where you make your reputation. I wanted an album that sounded like what we sound like live – an eclectic mix of the stuff audiences like, but also what we like. A lot of jazz musicians make music for other musicians to enjoy, and that’s great, but accessibility was important to me. Pop and contemporary tunes that people know are important to me.

The idea of making original music is great, which is why I have seven original tracks on the album, but I also like to have bread crumbs for the average listener who wants to know, “How do I get into this?” It’s not that people aren’t into jazz; it’s that there’s a packaging problem. It’s not that people aren’t into the music, it’s that for new people, there’s no way in.

How was the experience to record as a trio?
We have a hidden treasure in Chicago, with Ken Christianson of Pro Musica Audio. He has an amazing biography – started off as a high-end audio guy then began to work with True Stereo Recordings. He became the engineer of choice for bassist Charlie Haden, among other people, so he and Charlie have a huge discography together. He likes the sound of instruments in the room. He’s not looking for the cleanest, most-perfect take, he’s looking for the spirit of the sound of the room. There’s a mic on the drums, amp, and bass, and we’re all sitting in the room together. You get that bleed. You hear a hint of the guitar in the background of the drum track. The sound is incredible. Ken is the modern equivalent of the Rudy Van Gelder Blue Note sound.

How did you come to jazz?
I started playing guitar because I wanted to meet girls and I was bad at sports. In high school, I was playing Clapton tunes. When I went to college in Kansas, I was a theater major, and it became known that I was a guitar player; I was the 18-year-old guy who’d bring his guitar to parties like in Animal House (laughs). Then, the theater department put me in the pit orchestra for musicals. The music department needed a big band guitarist, and I could read charts. At the time, I thought George Benson was soft. If it didn’t have distortion, what was the point? I laugh now because Benson is it for me.

The first guy I heard was Russell Malone on Jazz At The Bistro, with Benny Green. It lit me up because this guy was playing a lot of guitar. I got into Monk, and right after that, the Ken Burns Jazz documentary came out. I watched it for 10 hours straight. Ten years ago, I met a guy named Wayne Goins, who is the jazz guitar teacher at Kansas State University. I thought I was playing some stuff, and he quickly disabused me of that notion (laughs). But, like good teachers do, he set me on the real path.

You have the coolest guitar.
I feel like I’m trying to play up to my guitars every single day. If I ever get to the level that my guitars are at, it’s going to be awesome. The oldest one I’ve had for a decade is a Benedetto 16B. I wanted an instrument I would have forever, so I started talking to Howard Paul and Bob Benedetto, and they made this guitar that is unparalleled. I’ve never played another archtop that can hold a candle to it. Bob is on the Mount Rushmore of archtop guitars.

What are some important elements you impart to your guitar students?
There are values I try to pass on about music and guitar. One of the things I have on the wall in my teaching studio is, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” There’s always someone who has the gig you want or the sound you want. If you make your life about that, it can be quite sad. I’m also a strong believer in positional playing and the CAGED system. I teach, “Work smart, not hard.” I want to reveal the workings of the guitar and how to build it for yourself. You can explain Jimi Hendrix, Steely Dan, and Taylor Swift if you understand the underlying structure.

This article originally appeared in VG’s December 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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