On the Record with Tom Knific, Jazz Bassist

Tom Knific, professor of double bass and jazz guitar at Western Michigan University

Courtesy of oberlin.edu

Tom Knific, professor of double bass and jazz guitar at Western Michigan University

Jake Frankenfield

Tom Knific is a bassist, composer and professor of double bass and jazz guitar at Western Michigan University. His four albums, Home Bass, Siena, Lines of Influence and The Muse, have all received critical acclaim. Knific visited Oberlin last week to teach a masterclass and perform alongside the Performance and Improvisation Ensemble at the Cat in the Cream. The Review sat down with Knific to talk about his passion for jazz, as well as some of the projects he’s worked on.

What brings you to Oberlin?

Friendship, music and shared passions. I was ecstatic to be invited to work with the Performance and Improvisation program, as well as with bass and jazz students. I am a big fan of the merging of styles, and the PI initiative speaks to me on many levels. As my career is a merger of classical, jazz, as well as other styles, I have always been on a mission to find and encourage like-minded musicians. It has been distinctly fulfilling to have Oberlin students arrange and perform my music with unique orchestrations. I find it mesmerizing to have my bass anthem, “Home Bass,” performed on oud, for instance.

You’ve had an illustrious career. What got you interested in music; and what

got you into jazz in particular?

I think music chose me. It always felt that way. I had a very musical environment early on. My father was a bassist and my older brother a drummer. Both were very influential, and where would any of us be without the right mentor at the right time? I was blessed with many from an early age — circa third grade! The sound of jazz always sparked me. Before I could appreciate the subtleties, I loved the energy and had a strong intuition regarding the depth of the music.

I had early influences from friends like Jamey Haddad, [professor of Advanced Improvisation and Percussion at Oberlin], who is ultimately responsible for my residency at Oberlin. I could happily do an interview on all the wonderful people who have shaped my life musically. It is remarkable to say most of these people continue to be an important part of my life, which says something about the nature of the relationships.

What does the landscape of modern jazz look like? What direction is jazz headed in?

It was a pleasure to discuss this in a class today. I always describe jazz as perhaps the first world music. It seems jazz is being influenced by music of the world in an ever greater capacity. The practitioners seem to be enveloping a wider and greater spectrum of influences that way. It’s terrifically exciting. It is obvious that the compositional aspect is evolving to the point that the similarities between some jazz and contemporary music are greater than the dissimilarities, and many jazz artists are mining 20th-century compositions and reinventing them to the benefit of both styles.

Can you tell us a little bit about the Western Jazz Quartet?

The Western Jazz Quartet is the faculty jazz ensemble of Western Michigan University. I took over the director ship of it in 1990 with a vision that it could be a dynamic and creative touring and recording entity. With six CDs of original music and five continents covered, I think we may have accomplished that. We had Billy Hart on faculty at the early juncture. He appears on three of the CDs and instigated some of our most memorable tours. The longevity of the ensemble inevitably led to new members [replacing] recent retirements. The new incarnation is imbued with a remarkable energy and creative spirit, as evidenced on last year’s release, Free Fall. We just received word of a Chamber Music America residency grant, so next year should be as busy as ever.

Anything you’d like to add?

Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, my association with many of the Oberlin jazz faculty is lifelong. This includes many founding members of the program, to the current artist teachers who are at the helm. We are performing a work here I wrote for Peter Dominguez in the early 1990s. I mentioned Jamey Haddad and Billy Hart; Paul Samuels and Kip Reed I would almost qualify as childhood friends. [I also have] new friends [at Oberlin], including Scott Dixon and Derek Zadinsky. Tracy Rowell, who was one of my very first bass students at The Interlochen Arts Academy, is here. My son, John Knific, is the Entrepreneurin-Residence at Oberlin, working with the Office of Creativity and Leadership — it’s the circle of life.