RISING STAR: Mark McKnight

The upcoming jazz musician on songwriting, touring trios and how his success wasn't 'Overnight'. Click Play Audio for two tracks

Jazzwise magazine described you as 'one to watch' in 2009. Did you ever feel that way about yourself as a musician?

I don’t come from a family with any other musicians so music wasn’t something that was immediately around me. I expressed an interest in the piano at around age six, and was lucky enough to receive classical lessons for a few years. However, I never really felt inspired playing the grade pieces I was learning and gradually lost interest. I think I began playing the guitar when I was 12. I saw Jimi Hendrix on the TV and was immediately drawn to the instrument.

I couldn’t say I had any ideas of being ‘one to watch’, I just loved the instrument and therefore was constantly playing and practicing, I guess it just developed from there naturally. Initially I was very serious about rock music, people like Joe Satriani and Steve Vai were big influences on me.

When I was 18 I was lucky enough to win the ErnieBall/Musicman Guitarist of the Year Competition. That was a kind of starting point for me, as a result I was offered a place at the Skidmore Jazz Institute by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, an amazing jazz summer course for kids in New York. Although I had listened to jazz a lot I had never really had the opportunity to learn much about it or play it with other people, so this three week course really changed my whole outlook on music and I’ve never looked back.

Also in 2009 you received the Musicians Benevolent Development Fund Award to host a series of performances in Belfast with a number of UK Jazz musicians. What was it like working with so many successful artists?

In the past three years, since returning to Belfast after graduating from Berklee College of Music (Boston), I have made a point of trying to hear what musicians are out there, both in Ireland and further afield. The great thing about the MBF award was that it allowed me to bring a large number of musicians from around the UK and Ireland to Belfast over the course of the year and really hear who was out there and what they were doing without being constantly concerned about making things add up financially.

It was a great experience as, in meeting so many jazz musicians and having the opportunity to make music with them I was able to work out which guys were into the same things as me musically. As a result, over the past 12 months I have formed two working trios with some of my favourite musicians, one a guitar trio (guitar, bass and drums), the other organ based (guitar, organ and drums).

I had a great tour with the organ group in November 2009 all over Ireland and Scotland, augmented to a quartet by fantastic NYC based saxophonist Will Vinson (who plays on my album also). I’ll be touring extensively with the guitar trio this February.

Which musician would you say has influenced you the most over the years?

That’s a difficult question to answer. To begin with I was influenced primarily by guitar players, for example Pat Metheny and Pat Martino were (and are) two huge figures for me. However, in recent years I’ve tried to move away from the influence of guitarists in an effort to develop my own original improvisational voice further. I find myself listening to a lot of piano players and saxophonists. Guys like Seamus Blake, Dave Kikoski, Brad Mehldau, Will Vinson, these are people I could listen to all day and never get bored. In short I don’t think there’s really any one person.

You released your debut album Overnight in 2009. Do you feel that, like the title, your success has come about in a short space of time?

I wish this was the case but unfortunately not! I have been practicing and developing my craft nearly every day of my life since the age of 12 so for me it certainly doesn’t seem like a quick process. I guess I’ve only really been working on my career since graduating from Berklee in 2006 and I have been getting more and more exposure each year, especially through 2009, so hopefully it’s moving in the right direction.

How would you describe the album?

I could describe Overnight as a concept album of sorts. I wrote all the music about an experience I had a couple of years ago; each song represents a stage in that experience and so the album is meant to tell a story. Musically, when I was writing the material I didn’t approach it with any preconceptions, I just let it write itself and it all came together over about a month. I would say more than anything it’s a melodically based album and so hopefully something that anyone can relate to regardless of what style of music they prefer. It’s probably not what a lot of people would think of when they hear the word 'jazz', but it’s improvised music definitely coming from the tradition of jazz.

Has being a Northern Irish musician influenced your music?

Not overly but I have experienced a lot of support from particular musicians here such as trumpeter Linley Hamilton, so in that respect I’m glad to be from here and have such people around me.

You have recently been touring with two different trios. How has that gone?

The first, which toured throughout Ireland and Scotland in November 2009, is an organ trio with two fantastic musicians from London, James Maddren on drums and Ross Stanley on organ. Ross and I have been playing together for nearly a year at this stage. He’s an unbelievable talent both on organ and piano. I first played with James only last October. I had a gig at the 606 Club in London that I hired him for and, just as with Ross, we hit it off immediately. He is truly exceptional, and only 22! For the tour the trio was augmented to a quartet by NYC based saxophonist Will Vinson, one of my favourite musicians in the world. We had a blast and will be touring again later in 2010 and recording an album too.

The other group is a guitar trio. This group also features James on drums and is completed by Glasgow bassist Euan Burton. Euan and I have been working together for a few years now. We’ve done a lot of playing and touring plus he plays on my album. This group premiered at the Ards Guitar Festival in October 2009, actually the very day after I first played with James at the 606 in London. We’ll be touring extensively this February with dates throughout Ireland, England and Wales. We’ll also be travelling to Norway as we’ve been selected as one of 12 emerging jazz groups from across Europe to appear at the 12 Points Festival there. This group will also be recording an album this year.

In your concerts you perform a mixture of your own compositions and fresh takes on jazz standards. Which makes you most nervous?

I wouldn’t say either makes me nervous. I try to enjoy every opportunity I have to make music; if I stop enjoying it I’ll stop playing it!

In addition to touring as a trio you are also going to be on tour with the European Jazz Orchestra. Are you looking forward to it?

Absolutely. It’s a great opportunity to meet a lot of musicians I might not otherwise have the chance to hear. Plus I am looking forward to travelling to a few places I haven’t been to before.

Which city are you most looking forward to playing in?

I am really looking forward to both Prague and Paris as each is beautiful in its own right and I know both have great jazz scenes, so I’ll make an effort to get out and hear some of the local musicians.

If, by chance, the European Jazz Orchestra ends up stranded on an isolated island in Germany do you think your experience would be more akin to Lost or Lord of the Flies?

I’ve never seen Lost so I’m going to have to say Lord of the Flies.

Tammy Moore


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