Tom Knific is an invisible jazzman, one of those people who live playing music, while known to few but the musicians. Work on soundtracks, theater pit bands, and studio pop dates are the common way to do this, but the last twenty years have brought another avenue: jazz education in universities. Steady work and steady pay, the chance to tour and record in the summer - tenure! It is an attractive path to take, and of late many fine musicians have taken this route. One such musician is Tom Knific, a bass instructor at Western Michigan University. He shows his stuff with five different small groups, with each demonstrating a different aspect of his playing.
Knific is in good company. Two of the players, tenor man Trent Kynaston and the much-recorded Billy Hart, are faculty mates at Western Michigan, Gene Bertoncini has recorded duets with John Pisano, and Andy LaVerne has recorded often, including a mid-Seventies stint with Woody Herman. They group in duos and trios, each group going for a different mood. The opener "All of You", with LaVerne, has Knific playing mock drums, snapping strings as the piano states the melody. The bass notes are drawled and prolonged, reminiscent of Scott LaFaro, a seminal influence for modern bassists. When time comes for Knific's solo, he doesn't raise his volume, LaVerne lowers HIS, resulting in a mood shift and a more intimate sound which is very pleasing.
The duos with Bertoncini are all Brazilian; Knific's solos here sound like what the critic Joe Goldberg called "a large guitar", appropriate when playing with a guitarist. The themes are alternately stated by both gentlemen, the other strumming as the one solos. "Imagem" offers Knific his only bowed part, in the theme statement; it definitely sounds like classical bowing (he has recorded with Andre Watts) and it really makes the mood of that piece. The trios with Kynaston and Hart place the bass as the traditional jazz timekeeper; on "Home Bass" Knific rips what sounds like an acoustic funk riff (didn't know that was possible, but that's what he does) while Kynaston soars and Hart absolutely goes to town. These sax-bass-drum numbers are the most varied, with "On the Brink" offering a samba beat and "Indian Orange" spotlighting Kynaston with a marvelous late-night growl in his tone (some multiphonics too.) This is probably my favorite track on the album; its energy is a nice contrast to the laid-back feel of the piano and guitar tracks. "Two for T" is Hart, Knific, and a second bassist, Pete Dominguez. After splitting the theme statement, one bassist solos as the other keeps time; then they switch. Hart gets a good solo, and this "whole lot of bass" is an apt place for the album to stop.
If I have any problem at all, it's in the liner notes, which go on about who Knific has played for, and the skills of his students, as if he needs to prove his merit. This record does that for him.