Most of his classmates wanted to be drummers but 11-year-old Evan Knight was content to play whatever instrument he was assigned in the school band, so long as it got him out of regular classes. And so it did.
Not only did Knight get to duck out of the classroom a few hours a week to practice saxophone, he also bypassed college entirely. Before he was out of John C. Birdlebough High School in Phoenix, Knight was on the fast track to a musical career; at age 16 he was playing with rock vocalist Benny Mardones and the Syracuse-based dance and horn band, After FX. A few years later, aboard saxophonist Warren Hill’s first annual Smooth Jazz Cruise in the Caribbean, he won the chance to play with jazz guitarist and composer Chieli Minucci on the main stage. So far this year, Knight had shared the stage with Erykah Badu, Raheem Devaughn, Dwele and Chico DeBarge.
And the Sammy goes to: Evan Knight won the Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Music Award in 2009 for Best Jazz CD. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
On Friday, June 25, 5 p.m., Knight returns to the main stage, this time opening the 2010 Syracuse Jazz Fest. Founder and producer Frank Malfitano says he hopes this year’s festival acts as a launch pad for the 24-year-old up-and-coming saxophonist. “Evan is a breakout artist,” says Malfitano. “He’s really ready to catapult to the national level. He’s got the look, he’s got the style, he’s got the sound. I mean, he’s got it. He’s ready to be on the main stage alongside his national and international touring and recording counterparts.”
Knight says he is thrilled and very grateful for the opportunity to open this year’s Jazz Fest, which runs three days, including Saturday, June 26, and Sunday, June 27, at the Onondaga Community College campus. “I’m really appreciative to Frank Malfitano for having me.” Knight says. “I’m excited to be playing, and I’m looking forward to setting the tone for the weekend.”
Knight will be part of a star-studded musical roster. The 2010 Jazz Fest lineup also features Natalie Cole, Boz Scaggs, Gil Scott-Heron, Richie Havens, Jeff Lorber Fusion, Kim Jordan, Richard Bona, Michael Kaeshammer and more (see full schedule on pages 18-19). “Evan’s that good,” says Malfitano. “If he wasn’t that good, he wouldn’t be on our main stage. It’s that simple.”
At Emerson J. Dillon Middle School, Knight began studying with renowned Central New York saxophone teacher Jerry Santy, who says Knight stood out from the beginning. “Evan is probably one of the most gifted students I’ve had,” Santy says. “He’s equally at home whether he’s doing rhythm’n’blues, pop or jazz. He can handle everything. He’s not one-dimensional at all.”
It was clear early on that Knight had the potential to be a career player, no liberal arts education necessary. “With Evan, I didn’t think college was a good thing for him,” Santy says. At a university, “You audition, you get in, then they give you one sonata for that semester, and you play it later for a few teachers, and they grade you,” Santy says. “That’s nice, but they don’t get to anything that’s practical, that they’re gonna use outside.”
According to Santy, those often-neglected practicalities include learning to work a microphone, work a crowd and, well, work out. “With Evan, I said, ‘I want you to go to the gym, keep yourself in shape. Always look good.’” Once again, Knight showed his star-student qualities as his matinee-idol good looks are part of his appeal
Since Santy believes there’s no one-size-fits-all musical education, his practical and flexible teaching philosophy worked out well for Knight, who admits he was “backwards” as a sax student. “A lot of people, when they do jazz, they start with all the old-school guys and they move onto newer-age type stuff. My father listened to a lot of modern, smooth jazz, so he would put on a Kenny G CD and I would transpose it and learn what he was doing, so I kind of started with the modern stuff.”
Santy recalls that Knight’s knack for the sax impressed him early on. “When he came in, I was shocked, he was very little,” Santy says of the then-13-year-old Knight. “He had a CD and he put it on, and he said, ‘I think I could do that,’ and he did it, to a T.” Whether forward or backward, Knight’s repertoire flourished from there.
“He’s got the full package: He’s handsome, he’s very presentable, he’s got a very caring heart, and he knows the format when he’s on stage,” Santy boasts of his prize student. “When something isn’t working for the audience, he knows how to go right to it and do it. Some artists will turn their backs, or if people aren’t reacting, they’ll get annoyed. Evan will find what gets them going. He really knows how to work a crowd nice.”
Knight agrees that performing is his passion and his forte. “I can perform, no problem: Put me on stage, and I’ll kill it,” says Knight, who is quick to credit Santy for teaching him technique and presence. In fact, he has made such an impression in the Salt City that Syracuse New Times readers bestowed the Best Jazz Band award upon him and his mates in 2009.
Honors system: As proof of saxophonist Evan Knight’s up-and-coming status as a jazz musician, he entertained those gathered for the Syracuse Jazz Fest press conference on March 26, and struck a brooding pose with his instrument. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTOS
Independently producing his own CDs has taught Knight the business side of music, which, he says, isn’t as easy or as fun. “All I want to do is perform, so the work-business aspect of it is a little bit wearing on me,” Knight says. “Recording is tedious, but it’s necessary, so I do it. But the schmoozing and all that stuff, I’m still learning.”
Knight has released one album, Reminiscence (independent), and is currently working on a second, Dark Horse (independent), due out this summer. WAER-FM 88.3’s music director and local jazz expert Eric Cohen calls Reminiscence “a great summer record. It’s got some really good funky vibes to it.” It won the 2009 Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Music Award (Sammy) for Best Jazz CD.
Knight says he wrote most of the material on his debut album when he was 18, so naturally his sound and style have matured over the past six years. “I’m extra picky with my writing and playing,” Knight says, “So I can listen back to that now and hear how some of my playing and writing is a little bit. . . raw.”
Knight considers his sophomore album a little more refined and forward-looking. “Dark Horse has a lot of r’n’b hip-hop feel to it, which is different. I’m kind of hoping to still please the current listeners—the Baby Boomer age—but also to get younger generations to appreciate instrumental music. That’s something that deep down I hope to do someday.”
Knight says the genre he most closely aligns with is “contemporary jazz or smooth jazz. It’s been around for a little while, and it’s become very complacent, very cookie-cutter. The creativity is kind of down, in a way,” he believes. “I try to be broad, and it would be nice to kind of add a spark—a little bit of freshness to that genre, because it’s become pretty stale.”
The title “Dark Horse” alludes to Knight’s own underdog story. “I’ve talked to a lot of the big-time guys in the genre, and everyone’s just kind of waiting for me to get on the scene. They all know me, they know I can do it; I just need to break in somehow,” says Knight. “The dark horse is the little-known guy that people kind of look past, but who is very capable of surprising everybody.”
A Little Knight Music
Knight’s sound is eclectic, in part because he has so many musical influences. “I listen to so much different music, that when I end up writing, a lot of different stuff comes out of me. I don’t listen to just jazz, and I don’t play just jazz or write just jazz music,” he says. And it’s that diversity that makes him a good fit for the festival, according to Malfitano.
“We have a very broad-stroke definition of jazz, and Evan fits into that perfectly, because his influences come from all over the place,” says Malfitano. “I’m a big tent kinda guy; I think there’s room under the jazz tent for everybody. That’s the cornerstone of our programming philosophy: We want to make jazz accessible. Nobody confines and restricts themselves musically anymore. Listeners don’t do it, and artists don’t do it. We have too many influences.”
Indeed, Knight learned to be versatile from Santy, who pushes his students to embrace musical diversity. “I like my students to be very well-rounded and accept all types,” Santy says. “A lot of people limit themselves and belittle everything else, which I think you should never do.”
If you feel the need to compare Knight with world-famous jazz musicians, Cohen has a list. “Grover Washington Jr., Michael Brecker, Stanley Turrentine, Eric Marienthal: I can hear little bits and pieces of them in Evan’s sound,” he says. “Ultimately, though, it’s about creating your own sound. Evan is not trying to sound like anybody else; he has to craft his own sound, and I think he’s doing that. But it takes years to do that, and he’s really only had one record.”
Adds Malfitano: “A recognizable style and a sound is hard to come by. Some people are born knowing, and other people die searching. But what I’ve heard from Evan knocks me out. He’s a powerhouse. And he’s a great player—he’s just got to figure out where his niche is.”
Malfitano expects Knight will find himself in the music biz equivalent of college: The Road. “That’s where you learn your craft: playing in front of new audiences,” says Malfitano. “The road provides an education that you can’t get at home. It’s kind of like going away to school. Same dynamics, I think. It’s just that in music, the university is the university of the road.”
Santy agrees that in order to break out, Knight has to get out of town. “If you wanna get out and really make a bigger impression around the world, then you gotta get out and do it.”
Malfitano hopes this year’s festival provides Knight the networking opportunities to set the necessary wheels in motion. “One of the great things about a festival is the hang factor, where artists get to check out other artists,” says Malfitano. “That’s how people get selected for studio recordings. That’s how they get selected to be part of touring bands. We’re hoping that by showcasing Evan, he’s gonna get seen and heard, not just by his hometown fans and peers, but by his national peers and the international jazz community. He’s earned it.”
In addition to world-class artists, agents and label representatives attend the annual Jazz Fest, and this year is no different. Knight is hopeful that he can sign with a record company, and Malfitano, Santy and Cohen are confident Knight will impress.
“I think he’s going to ignite the festival,” says Malfitano. “We purposely put him in the first slot on Friday night because it’s the right crescendo. Evan’s just going to kick the festival in the ass right from the jump, and that’s a good thing, because then everybody else knows they can’t mail it in. They gotta come out and blow. They gotta play.”
Santy thinks Knight will set the bar high. “He has a tendency to steal the show, even when he’s in the background, which is very good, because he knows how to do it without actually stepping on someone,” Santy says. “People are just drawn to him. He has that presence.”
With the humility others describe as characteristically Evan, Knight insists there’s no grand story to his playing the saxophone; “I just wanted to get out of regular class,” he says with a smile. Yet the consensus of several in the Syracuse jazz community is that the best is yet to come in Knight’s “dark horse” tale.
“A few years down the road, hopefully having sold millions of records, I think people will be able to identify Evan’s sound more readily,” says Cohen. “It will be quick for people to notice, ‘Oh, yeah—that’s Evan Knight.’”
The 2010 Syracuse Jazz Fest runs Friday, June 25, through Sunday, June 27, on the grounds of Onondaga Community College, 4585 W. Seneca Turnpike. Admission is free, but parking costs $5. For a complete schedule and more information, visit www.syracusejazzfest.com.