Billy Martin's Wicked Knee: Heels Over Head (2013)
After a long series of way under-the radar solo projects, drummer Billy Martin has chosen a more accessible route in the last couple of years, beginning with his duo collaboration with keyboardist Wil Blades, Shimmy (The Royal Potato Family, 2012).
The followup to the eponymous seven-track EP, Heels Over Head is equally easy to digest, perhaps more so, even if the instrumental lineup of Wicked Knee is somewhat unconventional. Martin has enlisted longtime kindred spirit and master horn man Steven Bernstein to play alongside tubaist Marcus Rojas and trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, and this collaboration is more diverse than initial listening might suggest. King Oliver's "Sugarfoot Stomp" doesn't appear 'til the seventh track, by which time Wicked Knee, by dint of tracks like "Button to Button" and "Rendezvous," has firmly established its feel for authentic New Orleans sounds.
In fact, the middleman in Medeski, Martin & Wood concentrates on second-line rhythms to the extent that Louisiana might seem to be his birthplace. Yet, on the opener "Chumba Zumba," he embellishes the beat in his own inimitable style and, as Heels Over Head progresses, his comrades personalize this music to the same extent. Martin's original tune "Muffaletta" may sound a bit conformist and thus too familiar for its own good, at least until the pulse of the Rojas' tuba kicks in and Fowlkes' trombone lines unfurl.
Bernstein long ago proved his versatility in leading his own groups such as Sexmob and Millennial Territory Orchestra, or collaborating with such estimable figures as the late Levon Helm and, over the course of many years, Martin. Thus, Bernstein's "Theme One" allows the whole quartet to shine at a pace both relaxed and rejuvenating, while his arrangement of the sole vocal track here, "99," highlights the sultry singing of Shelly Hirsch.
The tongue-in-cheek quality to that cut pervades the whole album and, like the rest of Heels Over Head's eleven tracks, it's economical for its duration. Nevertheless, there's a cumulative momentum as the album unfolds, its attraction as palpable in its generally celebratory mood as in the slightly foreboding mix of ambient horn sounds and exotic percussion called "Chaman's Interlude." The virtually indiscernible segue from that track into the insinuating arrangement of the traditional "Canta Y No LLores" suggests it would be very effective if such eerie atmosphere were more often woven in and out of the album. Still, the impact of those dynamics would be no more potent than that of placing "Noctiluca" as the album's concluding cut, offering appropriately timed moments to reflect upon the vivid experience that is Heels Over Head.
Track Listing: Ghumba Zumba; Theme One; Button to Button; Rendezvous; 99%; Muffaletta; Sugarfoot Stomp; Chaman's Interlude; Canta Y No Llores; Mbwemofolo; Noctiluca.
Personnel: Billy Martin: drums; Curtis Fowlkes: trombone; Marcus Rojas: tuba; Steven Bernstein: trumpet, slide trumpet; Shelley Hirsch: vocals (5).
Record Label: Amulet
Style: Modern Jazz