Many great albums pay an unwitting tribute to the
magic of enduring musical relationships, and the 20
years that Mark Saltman (bass) and William Knowles
(piano) have worked together adds another to that
list. Their eight album Native Speaker is out 8th July
on Odradek Records.
Meeting as composition students at the University of
Massachusetts and sharing an affection for the music
of Billy Strayhorn, Horace Silver, Cedar Walton and
Charles Mingus, they have spent time together as
Artists-in-Residence for the Kennedy Center
Millennium Stage, won various international
songwriting awards and received two grants from the
DC Commission of the Arts and Humanities.
With Native Speaker, the Washington-based pair
return – alongside Keith Butler Jr. on drums – to
celebrate the truly inclusive spirit of the African American artform, inviting listeners from all over the
musical spectrum to take part.
“Whether you are a ‘Native Speaker’ of my language or not, you’re welcome here. You’re welcome
in my country, my land, my music, my clothes, my home, our dreams and in our art. We wouldn’t
want it any other way.”
Whilst keeping the spirit and sensibility of classic jazz at its core, the repertoire stretches far outside
these walls; their original compositions showcase two experienced composers in fine form, whilst
a selection of unexpected pop hits shows just what can be done with a range of musical guests
and a finely-tuned set of arranging skills.
Interpretations of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, Sweet Dreams by Eurythmics and Everybody
Wants to Rule the World by Tears for Fears are fun and catchy, without losing the depth or detail of
the jazz tradition.
With the aid of a horn section, the original compositions – each with a story behind them – take the
listener from contemporary jazz to slow, soulful blues and back.
Saltman’s offerings are worldly, with Dororo (a Japanese animé) sitting alongside Lotus and Frog
(the Chinese symbol for renewal) and the wise “The Gentle Art of Compassion.”
Knowles’ focus on paying tribute and respect; Nate’s Advice was given over leisurely drinks at a bar,
whilst Ruben is about one of Knowles’s most admired Black heroes: his brother. He also contributes
the album’s eponymous track – a blues number that presents a philosophical pathway through life’s
many ups and downs.
In both spirit and sound, their message of inclusion shines through, inviting both the hardened jazz
fan and the tentative newbie a friendly welcome.
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