Saltman Knowles are a hard swinging, straight-ahead contemporary jazz group formed by bassist Mark Saltman and pianist William Knowles. Their latest release, Yesterday’s Man on the Pacific Coast Jazz label features strong original compositions, unusual instrumentation and melodic soloing. There are memorable tunes, driving rhythms and fabulous wordless vocals. This is foot tapping music powered by a special rhythm section.
Jimmy ‘Junebug’ Jackson spent 20 years with Jimmy Smith, so it’s not surprising that his drumming swings profoundly; he also shows remarkable restraint at times – bristling with energy like a coiled-up spring. Saltman uses his bass to support and structure his compositions, combining neatly with Knowles’ measured piano, which together with the wonderful drumming of Jackson, makes for quite a bedrock for the melodies and soloists.
The record is enriched through a varied and unusual line-up. Lori Williams-Chisholm’s vocals, especially her wordless vocals and scatting are engaging, and Victor Provost plays some quite exquisite soprano steel pan. Trumpeter Doug Pierce and saxophonists Brian Settles and Antonio Parker play with quite contrasting styles and approaches as well.
“Theme in Search of a Film” is a melodic piece in five. It’s a gorgeous melody heavily featuring Provost’s steel pan. Bass and piano play a unison four bar ostinato (unison piano and bass is a common theme on this record) that brings to mind the kind of bass/piano unisons Geri Allen uses on her records. Instruments are used cleverly to contrast different melodic sections voiced in different combinations – these are no mere blowing themes. There is a soprano saxophone solo which utilizes short phrases and lot of space and Knowles follows with an uninhibited melodic solo on piano, Brubeck-like at times as he dances over the five four beat. After the head returns the drums are set free to romp with unrestrained joy over a piano/horns vamp.
“Cry” is a memorable tune, the stand-out track for me. Williams-Chisholm’s wordless vocal is beautifully featured over three different rhythmic feels: a piano/bass ostinato, a swinging Blakey release and a section over sustained chords. Jackson’s press rolls are a delight and percussion adds an extra texture. Provost solos first, free-wheeling and expressive and the Tommy Flanagan influenced Knowles follows beginning with repeated patterns and building tension with motifs, swinging deeply. Bass and drums groove sensitively and powerfully. Williams-Chisholm’s ululations in the coda add another dimension entirely – her scatting gets me every time – it’s a real ‘hairs stand up on the back of your neck’ voice and it’s simply wonderful to hear – like the best of Dianne Reeves or Carmen Lundy but only sounding like Lori Williams-Chisholm.
“Shesh”, the Hebrew for six, is appropriately a Middle Eastern-flavored theme in 6/4 which contrasts with a bridge that has a touch of the carnival. Jackson’s drums have a Caribbean flavor which adds bounce and vitality. As always, Saltman’s basslines are supportive, solid and expertly phrased. The pan solo and short soprano solo make great use of the Hebrew mode.
“What was I to You” features Williams-Chisholm singing slightly awkward lyrics over a neat bossa rhythm. The sinuous melody is well phrased so I’m not sure why it failed to convince me – too many words? A minor criticism anyway. Jackson is effervescent under a classy Knowles piano solo which is followed by a soulful alto solo. I enjoyed the collective improvisation at the end as Williams-Chisholm is set free to interact with the alto and trumpet.
A bass groove opens “Blues for Sale” with an uplifting wordless vocal doubled by steel pan over a delicious bass/drums groove. Williams-Chisholm scats a solo over the adapted blues form and Provost follows, all bluesy and soulful. These cats sound like they’re having fun. Bass and drums continue the fabulous swinging groove under a tenor solo that hints at gutbucket before drums trade bars with the melody.
“Folk Song” features a bossa feel -it’s a strong lyrical melody cleverly arranged for wordless voice, horns and pan. Doug Pierce solos on flugelhorn and I immediately adored his playing. He’s someone who has clearly spent a lot of time listening to Booker Little and there is also a hint of Woody Shaw in his long bittersweet legato lines. This flugelhorn solo is one of my favorite moments on the record – a fine construction. An intense, winding alto solo by Parker sustains the mood.
“They Don’t Really Care For Us” has lyrics about the New Orleans flood. Jackson, suitably enough, chooses a second line feel which he alternates with a Blakey-ish swing release. Again, I am slightly unconvinced by the fit of the lyrics and the melody in the verses but the refrain works well and the message is an important one. The trumpet counter-melody works very well with the chorus theme. Saltman plays gorgeous walking bass behind steel pan, trumpet and piano who play a few choruses each: Provost freewheeling, Pierce building superbly and Knowles restrained and pensive. Williams-Chisholm gets do do an Ella Fitzgerald influenced improvisation on the chorus melody – she really takes off.
“Yesterday’s Man” is the most effective piece featuring lyrics. It begins suitably haunting rubato section featuring Williams-Chisholm over piano chords. The poignant, fractured melody fits the theme and lyrics which describe a holocaust survivor’s memories. Williams-Chisholm uses vibrato beautifully. A pensive tenor solo is followed by steel pan and trumpet.
“08 Bossa” alternates between a latin vamp and swing and showcases a wordless vocal. Saltman solos at length, favoring the low register and developing his ideas fluently and melodically over the form. Pierce follows with his fluid melodic conception on flugelhorn.
“Written for Jackson, East Orange Blues”, is a gritty adapted minor blues played in a Messengers style with some eloquent bass/piano doubled fills. Tenor solos in Rollins influenced style over a march type rhythm that perhaps goes on a smidgeon too long but is Mingus-like in its implementation. Saltman swings a lovely little bass solo before the return of the theme and the end of the record.
This record is firmly within the mainstream of the jazz tradition built around some fine compositions and some retrained, melodic blowing. The steel pan adds another dimension and is used sparingly and Lori Williams-Chisholm’s lovely vocals are the icing on the cake. Mark Saltman swings mightily and plays supportively throughout with a strong rhythmic bounce that fits like a glove with co-leader William Knowles’ piano and Junebug Jackson’s cracking drumming.