Before you know anything about Saltman Knowles’ Sept. 9, 2016 jazz album, Almost, you know the nine cats can play with controlled fire and easy musicality.
Whether it’s trumpeter DeAndre Schaifer topping the bottom on Knowles’ “Alias,” singers Yvette Spears andLori Williams introducing their own lush, unhurried phrasing to three vocal tracks, and or steel pan virtuosoVictor Provost guesting memorably on Kurt Weill’s “This Is New,” the seventh release by the bass-piano duo of Mark Saltman and William Knowles is a solid effort for a couple of unknowns, as they’ve labeled themselves.
The premise behind the nine-track album is based on a Dan Barry book, “Bottom Of The 33rd,” about the longest baseball game ever and how a team almost prevailed after so many innings. Saltman and Knowles likened their own pursuit of music to this journey over the payoff. The payoff for these two seasoned jazz musicians is the journey and the relationships fostered, which reflect in the tight and loose interplay and everybody on board for one swell melodic ride.
In the liner notes, it says those in this book devoted their entire lives to the game, “always honing, practicing and playing. Some went on to be household names, others faded. Regardless, the pursuit of the dream was relentless. There’s something special about the ones who didn’t quite make it. They almost did it, and still found it to be worthwhile and rewarding. The work itself, the process, builds character — even faith.”
Almost is Saltman Knowles’ open-ended statement about what it means musically to pursue muses without ego and with the right focus. They continue in the liner notes with a simple goal: “[w]e’re not the days’ virtuosos; not pedigreed with so many years playing with more famous established names; we’re not even what we were. Perhaps you find yourself in similar circumstances. You’re not what they say you are, but you’re not quite what you want to be either. We see our goal clearly. It’s just a wisp out of reach. We don’t know the full answer, but we almost do.”
The entire album is about the musicians in pursuit of their muses, an animated snapshot snapchat of their progress, rather than the final destination, or any sense of assumption that the finished product is fully realized, polished, and perfect. Saltman and Knowles contributed their own original tracks to the album, as well as three memorable covers, including one by Cole Porter.
For jazz musicians who are always in hot pursuit of perfection and never satisfied, this Almost album (and idea) hits the right spots, especially for the listener interested in a sample platter of the best a band can offer in a moment of time.
Nowhere in the track list is there a weak or half-hearted effort, however. Every song falls into a musical, tumbling melodic spree, at times differentiated in contrasting tensions, difficult chords, and a suspended alchemy of voice and fission — before returning to that rhythmically rolling constant.
The title track by Knowles is pure melody on top of melody, a nice reflection of the warm personalities embodied in the two bandleaders, together.
“I Remember Yusef,” from Saltman, enters with a Middle Eastern flair, bordering on lively, almost cantankerous, cross-country, free-form animation. The song might be a nod to one of several inspirational muses, the late multi-instrumentalist Dr. Yusef Lateef, who is mentioned with love and respect in the liner notes.
“McArthur,” another Knowles gem, follows a similar jazz/far-out train of thought, featuring the pianist and saxophonist Langford unearthing bountiful musical themes. Their solos stand for jazz chops and jazz feel.
Yvette Spears sings “This Is New” like a mini-operetta — punching her words out, as Knowles showcases his continued lock on the melodic fluster of an overheated classically-kissed jazzer, and Provost takes the melodic somewhere closer to the warm seas.
Lori Williams is the only other singer on the record. She takes on two covers, Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love” and Harry Warren/Al Dubin’s “September In The Rain,” with a more traditional jazz approach, easy on the phrasing, letting the space fall between.
Saltman Knowles’ Almost is a nearly five-year follow-up to Yesterdays Man. The duo’s beloved drummer Jimmy “Junebug” Jackson passed away after the previous release, which was tough to recover from.
Almost is dedicated to the “keepers of the faith” who inspired Saltman and Knowles, influential teachers, mentors, and friends: Jackson, Lateef, and the late jazz singer Mark Murphy.
Our track, "Shesh" was used in a recent episode of the Metropocalypse podcast. Check it out here.