Jazz combo Saltman Knowles has proven themselves a sophisticated, cohesive group that straddles the line between traditional and contemporary jazz. Their sixth release, Yesterday’s Man, further blends these genres by adding a seemingly unlikely jazz instrument: the steel drum. The result is an immensely likeable album combining world influences, vocals, and elements of traditional and modern jazz styles.
As previously reviewed, Saltman Knowles’ last album Return of the Composer flirted with free-form jazz. This time the sound leans more toward traditional, but the steel drum (played by Victor Provost) lends new dimensions to bassist Mark Saltman and pianist William Knowles’ work. For example, “Cry” pits vocalist Lori Williams-Chisholm’s vocals against Provost’s gentle yet beautiful steel drums. The instrument also beautifully accents the title track, with Provost effortlessly riding the groove and the lovely chord changes. In addition, the steel drum works as a counterpart to the flugelhorn on “They Don’t Really Care for Us,” which the group states is a tribute to New Orleans and their syncopated rhythms.
Other standouts include “Folk Song,” which really bears little resemblance to what one considers the folk sound. Still, Doug Pierce’s flugelhorn and Antonio Parker’s alto saxophone solos beautifully complement the piece, and Williams-Chisholm’s laid-back crooning weaves throughout the tune. “08 Bossa” contains more of a march-like rhythm rather that typical bossa nova, with frequent fluctuating tempos. The marching motif is also used on “East Orange Blues,” although the tempo becomes a bit monotonous as the track progresses. Due to different tempos, “08 Bossa” simply holds the listener’s attention much more. Middle Eastern rhythms pervade “Shesh,” with the steel drum adding more depth to the track. While the two genres seem unlike each other, Saltman Knowles fuses the two together with skill.
In addition to her scatting, Williams-Chisholm displays her singing chops on the breezy “What Was I To You,” a Brazilian-kissed number that showcases her many sides other than just vocalese. Knowles and saxophonist Brian Settles also turn in tasty solos on the track. But her scatting skills return on the slinky “Blues for Sale,” which prominently spotlights percussionist Jimmy “Junebug” Jackson. Provost really demonstrates how the steel drum can swing on this tune with dizzying speed. As they showed on their previous album, Saltman Knowles can function as a tightly cohesive unit, and this track really exemplifies that fact.
While the steel pan drum is used on many of Yesterday’s Man’s tracks, the group avoids overusing the instrument. Often it lies in the background, subtly accenting the tune (as on “Folk Song”), so the sound never grows tiresome.
Jazz fans that enjoy music with a world flavor should treat themselves to Yesterday’s Man. It expands listeners’ horizons as to what can be considered jazz. As this album shows, the genre can encompass varied sounds and influences, even instruments such as the steel pan. Yesterday’s Man represents another solid effort from Saltman Knowles, and hearing their constantly developing sound is an enjoyable experience.