At the Right Time and Place: Keyboardist Knoblock Bends Listeners' Imaginations

Jan 8, 2014

In a picturesque downtown shop called Never Ending Books, New Haven’s Uncertainty Music Series presents a bold musical explorer on Saturday night. Landon Knoblock is a 31-year-old composer and keyboardist whose soaring synthesizer solos create soundscapes of cosmic scope, reverberating  with imaginative sci-fi storylines.

Liftoff-time for Knoblock’s solo synth space odyssey is at 8:00 pm on Saturday, January 11, at the cozy storefront bookshop at 810 State St.

Knoblock, who paints freewheeling, expressionist portraits with an electronic palette, won’t be spinning never ending stories at Never Ending Books. Instead, the cliché-loathing artist promises to play with the more intriguing, surprising elements of uncertainty, and the delight in probing at least seven types of ambiguity.  

With a variety of electronics under his fingertips, Knoblock likes to stretch and bend his listeners’ imagination by improvising grooves rooted in colors, textures, tension-and-release, dissonance, consonance, drone music, backbeats, ambient and experimental noise and high-flying lines crackling with suspense and surprise, tapping into his own fertile imagination and influences ranging from Karlheinz Stockhausen to John Zorn to Radiohead and infinitely beyond.

As the plugged-in pilot/navigator, Knoblock gives you, his fellow voyagers, a beat to hang onto while in flight aboard his galactic improvisations.

Landon Knoblock.
Credit Landon Knoblock

"I think if you put a beat to something that somebody can grab onto, people will like it," Knoblock said by phone from his apartment in New York City. "I can probably do the craziest sound I can think of -- but if I have four to the floor [as a regular beat pattern], the average listener is going to get it."

Besides embracing technology since he was a kid, Knoblock is also a big science fiction fan.

Besides embracing technology, electronic instruments and science since he was a kid growing up in the suburbs of south Florida, Knoblock is also a big science fiction fan, a source of inspiration for his compositions with their sonic evocation of interplanetary adventures.

Starting at age three, Knoblock, who today plays a wide range of keyboards from acoustic to electronic, has also been fascinated by improvisation. Always curious, by age nine he taught himself how to play the music of Billy Joel.

Around that time, an uncle gave Knoblock a batch of vinyl LPs, including Pink Floyd’s The Wall, which he listened to faithfully every night. By 12, he formed his own rock band and was completely hooked on Phish and other freewheeling progressive bands into edgy improvisation.

By 15, the young keyboardist bought his first Fender Rhodes, followed by a second one at 16 -- baby steps on the road leading to his lifetime fascination with all things musical and electronic, and most especially, the kinds of magical, mystery tours, moods, colors, sounds, and stories he could evoke with them.

Knoblock said he was not “culturally connected” to jazz early in his life, but eventually discovered the music in his teens, hearing milestone albums by John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley. It wasn’t until he was in college that he really connected with jazz. He met the noted pianist Frank Kimbrough, who turned him onto the imaginative jazz piano world of Paul Bley and Keith Jarrett -- but most particularly onto the ground-breaking music of Jarrett’s American Quartet with saxophonist Dewey Redman, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummer Paul Motian.

"Those guys [Bley and Jarrett] obviously come from a different tradition than I do," Knoblock said, "but they have a similar spirit and attitude, especially the American Quartet, when they improvise. It wasn’t about swinging music, but about extensive exploration." He said that Bley "can take a moment in improvisation and just stretch it with such great elasticity."

One day, Knoblock said, he was listening to one of Bley's solo piano albums in his car to the point of distraction. "I was driving down the street," he said, "and Bley played this fascinating line that stretched out forever, and totally seized my attention. I nearly drove off the road. You just didn’t know how the line was going to resolve, or where it was going to go. That kind of improvisation on solo piano I found very appealing." He enjoys the sound of exploration. "The approach I love with improvised piano," he said, "is with players like Bley and Jarrett who, when they improvise freely, sound like they’re exploring, like they’re going to a planet, or going into the deep ocean."

Knoblock has studied a lot of acoustic piano, and has an abiding love for the traditional instrument. But he stressed that he can relate well to the sounds and textures he gets from synthesizers. "[It's] a lot closer to the music I grew up with," he said, "and the music I connect with the most from my own generation. I can relate to that sound."

Historically, Knoblock said he’s at the right time and place, because he’s just old enough to remember what the world was like before the high-tech revolution, but young enough to take advantage of it in every way, including artistically. "There are probably three-year-old kids today who can work their iPad better than their parents can," he said. "But I’m of that generation that grew up in a house that didn’t have a computer or the Internet, and then later did have a computer and the Internet. I remember the transition. So I have the perspective of both those worlds."

Knoblock is the latest among the praetorian guard of practitioners of improvised, electronic and experimental music who have performed in The Uncertainty Music Series. Organized and launched in 2007 by the New Haven-based bassist, composer, and fellow synthmeister Carl Testa, the series has presented such creative music luminaries as bassist Mario Pavone, a Waterbury native, and one of Connecticut’s great gifts to the international jazz avant-garde; the acclaimed, young guitarist Mary Halvorson, and the inventive cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum. 

The goal of Testa’s series is to provide a venue for cutting-edge artists, including perhaps lesser-known figures who may be hard-pressed to find a viable venue for their challenging music. Besides providing a regular home for avant-garde concerts, The Uncertainty Music Series also, with great certainty, provides an open forum for the exchange of ideas among makers of new music.

If you love this kind of music, which is often exiled to niche status, the going rate for a live concert is an absolute steal. A donation of $5.00 at the door is suggested. Information: (203) 433-2275 and uncertaintymusic.com.

While you’re at one of the concerts, savor the 1960s aura of Never Ending Books. It’s a heady mix of old curiosity shop and hip community center. An urban storefront cultural  and educational roost, it’s jammed with thousands of free, used books crammed in rows of book cases. Plus, of course, there’s the intimate performance space, which doubles as an art gallery. A slice of art, jazz and Bohemia, the old shop on State Street exudes the spirit of iconoclasm. Especially when it rocks to the revolutionary sounds of avant-garde improvisations as the enigma of the uncertainty of music meets the paradox of never ending books.

Credit Chion Wolf / WNPR

Amazing Grace

Grace Kelly, the 21-year-old musical maven, displays her diverse talents as alto saxophonist, singer, songwriter, arranger, and bandleader as she leads her quartet at 8:30 pm on Saturday, January 11, at the Side Door Jazz Club, 85 Lyme Street in Old Lyme.

A onetime child prodigy, the now young adult phenom has already won a warehouse full of awards and plaques, cut an impressive lot of madly acclaimed recordings and basked in bravos and encores at many hundreds of concerts from Carnegie Hall to the Hollywood Bowl, throughout Europe and Asia and virtually anywhere else there’s an audience for hip, young alto players.     

No flash-in-the-pan, no plastic fabrication forged from record company hype, Kelly has been recognized as the real deal, even by the notoriously acidulous critic and legendary alto saxophonist Phil Woods, the well-read reed maestro with an unerring eye and ear for detecting jazz fakery posing as royalty.

Doors open at 7:30 pm. Admission: $35.00. Information: thesidedoorjazz.com and (860) 434-0886.

Ed Fast.
Credit Ed Fast

A Fast Response to an SOS!

Percussionist Ed Fast and his Conga-Bop ensemble ride to the rescue of Northwest Catholic High School’s call for aid to help refurbish its ailing Steinway concert grand when the noted Latin jazz maestro and his power-packed posse perform at 7:00 pm on Saturday, January 11, in a benefit concert for the school’s Save Our Steinway (SOS) fund.

Members of Northwest’s Big Band and Jazz Ensemble and Conga-Bop players will be featured at the concert in the school’s Rice Auditorium, 29 Wampanoag Drive in West Hartford. Tickets: $10.00, general public; $5.00, students: northwestcatholic.org/LatinJazz.

Northwest Catholic's Big Band and Jazz Ensemble.
Credit Northwest Catholic

Fast, who’s director of Latin Jazz Ensembles at The Hartt Community Division of the University of Hartford, conducts a master class for high school jazz students earlier that day from 3:00 to 4:00 pm. Fast’s seminar and the opportunity for students to play and learn directly from professional musicians is hailed by Daniel Luddy, the school’s director of instrumental music, as an extraordinary learning experience. Fast, who thrives on advocating for jazz both on the bandstand and in the classroom, is delighted to play his two favorite roles in the day/night doubleheader both as educator and performer, as well as the opportunity to answer the SOS and help rescue a Steinway in distress.

Ideals Swing Soulfully    

An acclaimed ensemble graced with an all-inclusive embrace of ethnic world music and global cultures, David Chevan and Afro-Semitic Experience meld myriad musical elements, including the art of jazz improvisation, African-American sacred traditions, and Jewish liturgy, at 3:00 pm on Sunday, January 12, in the free Baby Grand Jazz series at the Hartford Public Library, 500 Main Street.

Eclectic and ecumenical, the smart, spiritual band strikes an artful, humanitarian blow for enlightenment, tolerance and understanding. Besides its philosophical underpinnings, it also swings with plenty, plenty soul of both the sacred and the secular varieties. Information: (860) 695-6295.

Welcome Aboard

Guitarist/bassist Joe Morris and trumpeter/cornetist Stephen Haynes welcome Japanese-born percussionist Satoshi Takeishi aboard their smooth sailing Improvisations series at 3:00 pm on Sunday, January 12, at Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor Street in Hartford. All ideas are on the table in this living experiment in collective improvisation, including even open discussion between audience members and the three performers. Admission: $15.00, general public; $12.00, RAW members. Information: realartways.org and (860) 232-1006.

Brighenti Brightens the Day

Pianist John Brighenti, a seasoned veteran, and his young protégé of much promise, vocalist Erin O’Luanaigh, bring their A game with them as they team-up with the peripatetic bassist Matt Dwonszyk at 6:00 pm on Thursday, January 9, at MCC on Main, 903 Main Street in Manchester. The monthly First Thursday event is hosted by Imagine Main Street. Admission: $5.00. Information: (860) 647-6030.

Royal Jammin’ Jamboree

The Stephen King Porter combo reigns over the weekly Jazz Mondays jam and jamboree at 8:00 pm on Monday, January 13, at Black-eyed Sally’s, 350 Asylum Street in Hartford. Admission: free. Information: (860) 278-7427 and charteroakcenter.org.

Please submit press releases on upcoming jazz events at least two weeks before the publication date to omac28@gmail.com. Comments and suggestions left below are also most welcome.