Tom Knific

Bassist/composer/educator talks to FBPO about his stellar career (Dave Brubeck, John Abercrombie, Art Farmer) plus advice for playing classical and jazz!

Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
January 25, 2010

Bassist, composer and educator, Tom Knific has made a life from his diverse musical passions. Classically trained on two continents and having been drawn to jazz since childhood, Tom has navigated and flourished in these worlds, leaving a trail of critically acclaimed concerts and recordings, inspired compositions and a growing roster of students making their own mark on the music scene.

Tom has performed and/or recorded with jazz legends Dave Brubeck, John Abercrombie, Art Farmer, Toots Thielemans, Harvey Mason, Billy Hart, Gene Bertoncini, Sir Roland Hanna, Fred Hersch, Jamey Haddad and many others.  He has also recorded with world-renowned classical musicians Pepe Romero and Andre Watts.

Knific has been professor of double bass and jazz guitar at Western Michigan University since 1987. He was appointed Director of Jazz Studies in 2000 and produced and hosted the 2005 International Society of Bassists convention at WMU.  Tom has released three CDs under his own name, Home Bass, Siena and Lines of Influence, and is the recipient of the Down Beat magazine “Achievement in Jazz Education” award. 

FBPO: Tell me about growing up in a musical family in Ohio.  Cleveland has become known for its rich rock & roll heritage, but what kind of an environment did it provide for you as a young jazz enthusiast?

TK: Growing up in a household where music was a central part of family life was great. My grandparents, from Slovenia, were very musical. My grandfather was a flutist and guitarist who played well into his 80s. He was also a master music copyist. In fact, some of his scores still exist in the Cleveland Public Library. I enjoyed serenading my grandparents in their home in the later years. My father Rudy is a bassist and many of his best friends were musicians.  We had family gatherings that were centered on jam sessions. It seemed like the coolest thing in the world to me as a youngster, seeing these generations getting together and creating music.

In a great circle of life thing, my father began playing again in his late 70s, which has been a beautiful thing to witness. My older brother Randy was an inspiration and resource for me, also. He began playing professionally in middle school, up to 5 nights a week, which connected me at an early age to the gigging world. He also had premium taste in many styles of music and amassed an exemplary record collection.  So I was surrounded by great influences.

Jazzwise, Cleveland offered much. I had a remarkable first music teacher, a guitarist named Jim Leihenseder, who taught me harmony, voicings and standards and took me out to clubs to hear the greats. I also was fortunate to work with Ken Peplowski in high school and Jamey Haddad and Joe Lovano in college, to name just a few of the great influences and opportunities that Cleveland presented.

Classically, it was a great scene too. I spent much time at Severence Hall listening to the Cleveland Orchestra. Lawrence Angell, the principal bassist, took me on as a student in 10th grade. I spent seven years studying with him, which gave me tremendous insight into that world. All in all, Cleveland provided me with a great environment, very creative and inspiring.

FBPO: Tell me about the jazz studies program at Western Michigan University.  What can a student expect to get out of it?

TK: I am so proud of our program. It was the first one of its kind in the State of Michigan. The faculty has been amazingly consistent over the years, which has created a real scene. In fact, the core faculty has not changed since the program’s inception and it just keeps growing. We have had wonderful associations with some true jazz icons. Billy Hart has been a visiting artist-in-residence for sixteen years, Fred Hersch for six. We also had a four-year artist-in-residence opportunity with Stefon Harris.

The program is extremely hands-on, definitely not a cookie cutter program. Students are really challenged to develop a voice. We provide a tremendous amount of opportunity for performances, locally and on tour. We have a world-class jazz club partner joint venture, which provides over a hundred nights of bookings annually for our students, faculty and alumni.  The Union Cabaret & Grill, situated in downtown Kalamazoo, helps us integrate what we do into the community.

Basswise, it has been a beautiful year. We have had residencies by Esperanza Spalding, Ben Street, Ben Allison and Nicholas Schawrtz, the wunderkind who won the ISB competition and the Stulberg Competition within a three-month span last year. We have a professional recording studio in-house, where a lot of projects are generated, often funded through our program. We strive to educate the whole student, preparing each one to be the best they can be, as musicians as well as people.

FBPO: As a bass teacher, do you have any “Tom-isms” – or better yet, “Knific-isms” – you drill into your students?  You know, about intonation, time feel, grooving…?

TK: I have many. Some students started writing down my sayings a few years ago.  I’ve got a couple of pages worth so far!

I try to integrate all of my background and experiences into my teaching. By definition, it is still evolving. Also, my classical background helps me with my jazz teaching and the jazz background, in turn, helps with the classical teaching. I talk to the orchestral section in terms of groove and the jazz people in terms of fluidity, nuance and chamber music.

Technique-wise, Franco Petracchi had a tremendous influence on me. My work with him creates the backbone of my technical pedagogy. Aside from being a great performer, conductor and composer, I observed how, as a teacher, he impacted the broadest range of bassists. His legacy is enormous and I am trying in my own way to promote those standards.

All of my students hear me state “Rhythm is King!” from day one. And they hear it often! In terms of groove, I tell them to learn as much drum vocabulary as possible. The connection between the drums and bass is so very essential. I point out that our history of harmony is many hundreds of years old, but the history of our rhythms is perhaps thousands. The great fortune I have had to work most of my career with the likes of Billy Hart and Jamey Haddad has shaped my approach to music and bass playing greatly.

In the collegiate setting, the students have a great privilege – even luxury – to rehearse. I strongly promote the development of getting individuals to truly become “bands.” So much is learned in the pursuit of common cause, musically. And the lessons in group dynamics are lessons for life. I like to deal with all small ensembles as chamber music, listening, really hearing each other. The goal is to improve any situation or scene through your own contribution, musically and by what you bring as a human being.

Intonation – ahh – the life pursuit of all string players! Again, the Petracchi work is essential. I encourage students to use ALL their senses in developing better pitch. Beyond hearing it, they must have it down in a tactile sense. In so many settings, from orchestral to any variety of bands, you have to nail pitches before you may hear them. You have to feel pitches on the instrument. And visually. The use of mirrors for hand position and bow arm is essential. Ironically, I tend to solo with my eyes closed and I get a certain amount of feedback from younger players regarding getting around the instrument like that. It is important they know that I earned that; I did not learn that way.

FBPO: How do you help your students find the balance between, on the one hand, wanting to make music and, on the other, needing to make a living. What words of advice to you give them?

TK: I promote developing the highest standards with the most inclusive stylistic sensibilities. You never know where your work may come from. One has to make one’s own luck, to a certain extent, by trying to be ready when opportunity knocks and by being willing to take chances, try new outlets and aggressively develop new opportunities. It seems, more than ever, that we are required to be entrepreneurial and we are required to know more and more about related fields and technologies.

FBPO: You must have been proud to play host to the International Society of Bassists convention a few years back!

TK: That was a life-changing endeavor. Just to wrap one’s head around the entire process and make a go of it challenged all of my administrative, musical, creative and interpersonal abilities. It was more than a two-year process, which resulted in nearly a thousand bassists from nearly 30 countries showing up in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The convention offered 100 programs.  Several commercial CDs and DVDs were produced that long week in June 2005, too. It gave me an opportunity to create new synergies between community entities to support the convention. I feel so privileged to have been given the responsibility.

FBPO: The people with whom you’ve performed make your resume read like a who’s who of music luminaries: everyone from Dave Brubeck and Art Farmer to Eric Marienthal and Harvey Mason – not to mention Pepe Romero and Andre Watts!  What wide variety of all-stars!  What experiences stand out in your mind as being particularly special or memorable?

TK: These truly wonderful artists have given us all so much, so many special moments it is hard to compare. I can provide a few highlights.

Dave Brubeck was one of my very first influences.  I bought his recordings while I was in middle school and to work with this brilliant and compassionate gentleman was awe inspiring. I performed with him just after Miles Davis had passed and he played “In Your Own Sweet Way,” which he had written as a tribute to Miles. Because of where I was standing, my head was almost inside of the piano when Brubeck performed. I will never forget that experience.

I have shared so much with Billy Hart also, throughout nearly twenty years of teaching, touring and recording with this living legend.  Hart, by the way, seems to recall every detail from his entire career and is always making historical and personal connections, which is remarkable and enlightening. He should have a radio or television series, or at the very least write a book! The depth of that relationship is something I am grateful for.

I also feel a particular affinity with Gene Bertoncini, with whom I’ve performed many memorable concerts. Once in Houston, during an ISB convention, we played to an overflow crowd at a club. The audience was so attentive, we could feel our music being absorbed by that very bass-friendly audience. It was truly magical.

I recall a number of concerts performed with my Western Jazz Quartet in Brazil, where the audiences can truly make you feel appreciated. We even had several instances where the crowds overran the staging area after the show, which was exciting, in a Brazilian kind of way!

One of the greatest rewards in life has been performing with my two sons, John and Gene, both of whom are remarkable young musicians. I have made several recordings with each of them. Making music with them is one of my greatest honors.

FBPO: In addition to being a player, you’re known as quite an accomplished composer.  Tell me about some of the commissions you’ve received and the works you’ve composed.

TK: Writing is a real passion for me. I have written most of my life, usually for my own recordings or band projects. To be asked to write for others has been a dream come true.

I was commissioned to write a work for the contemporary music ensemble, OPUS 21. The theme was “Motown,” so I took the high road and invoked Stevie Wonder. The work was performed at Orchestra Hall in Detroit and The Library of Congress in Washington, among other venues. What a thrill to be part of that process!

The great UK bassist, Thomas Martin, had me write a duo for bass and viola, which he premiered at my ISB convention. They smoked it! That piece is showing up in concert all over the planet.

I wrote another duo for bass and violin, which is still in manuscript. I premiered it in Beijing last May while doing a residency at the China Conservatory. It was written in honor of the Zhang family, which has generations of bassists among them, including the young virtuoso, Daxun Zhang.

Last year, the ISB commissioned me to compose the required solo work, “The Muse and The Master,” for the convention at Penn State. I got to hear a dozen of the finest young bass soloists from around the world perform it in competition. That was an incredible experience!

Recently I co-composed a pair of pieces with my son, John. That has been one of my most wonderful collaborations. We wrote the title track to our recently released Lines of Influences CD together. And we recently recorded, “That Day In May,” which we wrote together in Italy last summer.  It will be in an upcoming release.

FBPO: How would you describe Home Bass, Siena and Lines of Influence, your solo CDs?

TK: Both of those CDs are collages, mostly with smaller ensembles. Home Bass is a tribute to two ensembles which were central to me at the time: a sax, bass and drum trio with Trent Kynaston and Billy Hart and my duo with work with Gene Bertoncini. And as I never had the opportunity to work with my lifelong influence, Bill Evans, I chose to record several duos with his musical protege, Andy LaVerne. These are all intimate duos and trios, mostly original music with several Brazilian gems.

Siena followed a similar trajectory, but with a wider palette of artists. Lyrical in concept, it can almost be referred to as my “ballads” CD. I included Fred Hersch, John Abercrombie, singer Sunny Wilkinson and Sir Roland Hanna in one of his last recordings, along with Bertoncini, Laverne and others. Even with all this talent, other than one quartet grouping, it was again mostly trio settings. I feel with these CDs I predated the iPod shuffle concept. There’s enough similarity to create continuity and enough contrast to keep it interesting.

Last year, I released Lines of Influence with one of my working groups, The Tom Knific Quartet, made up of younger artists who passed through our WMU program at various times. It is a total blast playing with the young lions!  It made me wish I had thought of it earlier. The title reflects the fact that influences flow in all directions.

FBPO: I bet a lot of people don’t know you’re a guitar player, too.  Do you still pull out the ol’ six-string now and then?

TK: The guitar was my first love. You never forget your first love. I play it – and teach it – daily. I am actually also the jazz guitar teacher at WMU and maintain a studio that allows for only four students total. So the level is very high. I don’t perform much on guitar; I know where to draw the line. But my mind and heart are there. I do think guitar-istically as well. I actually write many of my jazz compositions on that instrument, as I play it much better than piano. I think it has affected my jazz bass harmonic conception as well.

FBPO: What lies ahead for Tom Knific?  What would you like to do that you haven’t accomplished yet?

TK: Several things. I am in a real writing mode and hope to keep that muse on my side for the rest of my life! I have been recording and mixing a new solo CD, mostly original works, which is thematic in nature, a first for me. It is inspired by and devoted to my Eastern European roots and connections. It includes several tracks with Fred Hersch. I am so honored to have him perform and record my compositions. He is such a poet. My quartet makes several appearances on the CD, as well. I have also included a pair of tracks in one of my favorite settings: bass and voice. I am working with two wonderful singers, Taylor O’Donnell and Mark Jackson, and hope to develop more opportunities for those precious settings.

Speaking of roots, I am helping produce a new group – and group concept – that we have been bantering about for nearly two years. Several of us with origins from Cleveland have recently launched a new band, which we are calling… Cleveland! It includes Ken Peplowski, Jiggs Whigham, Shelly Berg, Jamey Haddad and me. Our inaugural concert was at WMU several months ago. We had never all been onstage together until the day of the first concert. It was magical and incredibly rewarding musically. I am looking forward to developing, touring and recording with this group.

Ideally, I would like to do a record of all through-composed works in the next year or so. The idea is to keep it all in the chamber genre, so I will need to compose several more pieces.

One new idea that has been resurfacing the past month is to combine my musical and administrative backgrounds in the form of directing a festival, either an existing one or a new one I would create. I truly enjoy settings that combine styles like jazz, world and classical, and would love to put my back into something like that.

FBPO: How do you spend your time when you’re not involved in music?

TK: There is scarce little time outside of music. And because my family is so musical, when I am not pursuing my musical interests, I am often involved in my family’s. It is truly a lifestyle.

I love running and working out at the gym. This competes with, and hopefully balances my foodie tendencies.  Movies, classics and the new releases intrigue me, as does reading. I have been addicted to the New Yorker magazine since early college! I absolutely love travel, which comes with the job, fortunately. Believe it or not, if I had more free time, I would travel more just for pleasure.

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