Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


Mark McKnight

Mark McKnight Organ Quartet at Dempsey’s, Cardiff, 20/09/2011.

by Ian Mann

September 22, 2011


This is one hot band and their performance was far better than anyone had dared to expect.

Mark McKnight Organ Quartet, Dempsey’s, Cardiff, 20/09/2011

The young Belfast based guitarist and composer Mark McKnight has released two albums as a leader, “Overnight” (2009) and the recently issued “Do Or Die” which I have only just covered for this site. On both albums McKnight exhibits considerable potential both as an instrumentalist and as a composer but this superlative gig at Dempsey’s, part of a tour by the “Do Or Die” line up, comfortably exceeded expectations as McKnight and his group produced an inspired performance that made the records sound rather tame by comparison.

“Do Or Die” was recorded almost a year ago in October 2010 and with the emphasis on McKnight’s writing the results seemed rather too polite in the face of this barnstorming performance. McKnight, Ross Stanley (organ ), James Maddren (drums) and guest tenor man Seamus Blake stretched out on McKnight’s compositions to dramatic effect, stretching the fabric of the tunes, changing the order of the solos and generally blowing the hell out of the material. The presence of the largest Dempsey’s crowd I’ve seen for a long time was a big help, the ranks swelled by a sizeable number of freshly returning students from the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama. The enthusiasm of the crowd clearly inspired the musicians but as McKnight explained they have had the chance to play these tunes in by now and I suspect that the high standards set here will be maintained for the rest of the tour. Catch them if you can.

The quartet kicked off with “Nightcap” from the new record, here transformed into a feature for the whole band with McKnight soloing first with his fluent, elegant single note runs. Blake, born in the UK, raised in Canada and now based in New York following a spell at Berklee College of Music in Boston (also McKnight’s alma mater) introduced himself with a typically muscular tenor solo and the tune was extended to include features for Stanley and Maddren, the drummer trading breaks with the other instrumentalists. Exhilarating stuff and a great start to the evening’s proceedings.

McKnight then introduced a new tune “The Ballad of Lee Murgatroyd”, a composition that failed, but delightfully so, to live up to it’s title. Instead it proved to be a piece full of uplifting grooves and strong melodies, perhaps inspired by McKnight’s admiration of Pat Metheny. This was a real flag waver of a tune that incorporated solos from Blake and McKnight plus a further feature for Maddren. The audience loved it and although as yet unrecorded the piece is clearly on its way to becoming one of the hits of the tour.

Rodgers & Hart’s “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” is the only standard on the new album. Here the group adhered more closely to the recorded version with Stanley’s solo organ introduction and a slowed down arrangement featuring Maddren on brushes throughout. McKnight’s delicate, crystalline solo was followed by Blake’s sensitive ballad playing, a timely reminder of his all round ability on the tenor sax.

The first set closed with the title track of McKnight’s début CD, the bebop flavoured “Overnight”. As so often during the course of the evening the quartet expanded upon the original taking the mercurial, boppish lines as the jumping off points for expansive and expressive solos with McKnight leading off, followed by Stanley and Blake before the tune climaxed with another Maddren drum feature. In other contexts it’s often Maddren’s delicate precision and attention to detail that is commented upon but every now and again, in a context such as this, he really relishes the chance to truly rattle the tubs. He was clearly enjoying himself immensely throughout the course of the evening.

A well paced second set began with “Pieces”, one of the more thoughtful tunes on the new album. With Maddren back on brushes there were well constructed solos from Stanley and McKnight as the group eased us gently into the second half of the evening.

Any notions that the second set was to remain a more relaxed affair were quickly torpedoed by a   highly combustible version of “Do Or Die” itself with Blake’s bellicose but astonishingly fluent tenor sax solo underpinned by some truly volcanic drumming. McKnight had to follow this but rose to the occasion with some typically slippery lines augmented by the judicious use of his effects pedals. Still not finished Maddren rounded things off with an explosive and exuberant drum feature.

“Contemplate”, again taken from the new record, lowered the temperature a little with Maddren again taking up the brushes to accompany tasteful solos from Stanley and McKnight. However this is a tune with more bite than its title might suggest and Blake’s tenor solo slowly brought things back to the boil and he eventually locked in with McKnight’s guitar in a display of almost rock like dynamics before a quiet coda.

In my review of the record I suggested that the track “(We’ll) Just Disappear ” seemed destined to become something of a live favourite and so it proved. The quartet took McKnight’s already highly descriptive piece and wrought the maximum amount of drama from it with Stanley’s splendidly Gothic organ intro being followed by McKnight’s soaring, stratospheric guitar solo . But the real fireworks came from Blake with a stunning solo that mixed fluency and power, building to a climax above a backdrop of dense organ chording and Maddren’s increasingly busy drumming. McKnight just sat back on his haunches and admired the work of his three colleagues before rejoining the group for a final reprise of the theme.

A rapturous reception incorporating the kind of whooping and hollering I’m more accustomed to seeing at The Vortex ensured that an encore was inevitable. After a brief pause, during which Mr. Blake left the stage to visit the “urination station” as McKnight delightfully described it, the quartet romped their way through a grooving, gospel tinged version of pianist Joey Calderazzo’s modern day standard “Midnight Voyage”. This seemed an appropriate choice, I first heard the tune on the Michael Brecker album “Tales From The Hudson” and it seemed to me that there was something of the spirit of Brecker in Blake’s playing,  and maybe a hint of Chris Potter too.

But the evening wasn’t just about Blake, McKnight was also superb throughout soloing cogently and melodically and providing intelligent material for the quartet to work on. Ross Stanley, so dazzling only a couple of weeks ago as the pianist with Alex Garnett’s group proved himself to be equally adept at the organ. Stanley is in many ways the unsung hero of the group, McKnight’s announcements acknowledged the sheer amount of hard work put in by Stanley as the backbone of the band. As for Maddren once he’d loosened up he simply had a ball, playing with enormous verve and enthusiasm and no little skill, always with a smile on his face.

This was one of the great nights at Dempsey’s, a reminder of just how magical this intimate venue can be sometimes when band and audience get on the same wavelength. This is one hot band and their performance was far better than anyone had dared to expect, some of the RWCMD students were awestruck by what they’d seen. I suggested to McKnight that they really ought to make a live album and he told me that the Belfast date, his hometown gig, is to be recorded so there may yet be a live release. Let’s hope so. In the meantime I’d urge anybody reading this to get out and catch the band on one of their remaining tour dates. If they continue in this form you won’t be disappointed.

The remaining tour dates are;

Thurs. 22nd - 8pm Seven Arts 31 Harrogate Road, Leeds LS7 3PD

Friday 23rd - 7.45pm Millennium Hall, Polish Centre, 520 Eccleshall Rd, Sheffield S11 8PY

Sat. 24th - 7.30pm The Seamus Ennis Cultural Centre, Naul, Fingal, Co. Dublin, Ireland

Sunday 25th - 7.30pm Crescent Arts Centre, 2-4 University Rd, Belfast

Monday 26th - 8.30pm The Blue Lamp, 121 Gallowgate, Aberdeen AB25 1BU

Tuesday 27th - 8pm The Cluny, 36 Lime Street, Newcastle NE1 2PQ

Weds. 28th - 8.30pm Swansea Jazzland St. James Social Club, St. James Crescent SA1 6DR

Thurs 29th - 7.15pm Ronnie Scott’s 47 Frith St, Soho, London W1D 4HT *LAUNCH NIGHT*

Thurs 29th - 8.30pm The Spice of Life, 6 Moor Street, London W1D 5NA *LAUNCH NIGHT*

Friday 30th - 8pm Great Northern Hotel, Station Approach, Peterborough PE1 1QL


From Dan Blake;

Hi Ian,
This has to be the most passionate and enthusiastic gig review I’ve ever read. It’s a real treat to read a review that is honest and open and captures brilliantly the mood of the moment. Too many reviewers can’t resist the temptation to either show how clever they are by dropping names or resorting to snide comments. A thoroughly enjoyable read.

blog comments powered by Disqus