Kneebody Arrives

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We —Ben Wendel
The next major quake to hit LA may have less to do with shifting tectonic plates than with a crackling quintet thundering up the jazz charts with a powerhouse collection, at once challenging and accessible. Kneebody's eponymous album floats like an iron butterfly and stings like a diesel. "It's got a lot of testosterone. It's a very energetic sonic experience, says resident reedist Ben Wendel. And while their unique soul-jazz-on- steroids sound captures a growing cadre of Knee-heads, their beautifully crafted melodic ballads, and moody impressionistic sketches are the guilty secret.

Formed by Wendel, drummer Nate Wood, bassist Kaveh Rastegar, trumpeter Shane Endsley, and keyboardist Adam Benjamin, Kneebody runs jazz through a broad collective musical background to create a remarkably potent blend whose primary flavor remains jazz.

"I've been describing our music as hybrid music, Wendel explains. "We're musicians that have have absorbed a lot of different styles of music. We're just trying to make music that is an amalgamation of what's around us now, just like everybody's done from whatever era they're coming up from. So, this music is a hybrid of all the tastes we like.

"The cool thing about this band is, everyone in the band writes and everyone has a distinct voice, enthuses Wendel. "Not everyone in this band is coming primarily from a jazz background. Everybody's coming from different places. We've all studied jazz, we all understand the language and are able to express the complexity of jazz. But then, as much as we love jazz, everybody also has equal interests in other genres of music. In my own background, my mom was an opera singer for 25 years. She sang with LA Opera. Different sounds, different sections, it's like the process of five different musical viewpoints coming together. This band is a leaderless band. This is an equal parts ownership kind of group.

Keyboard player Adam Benjamin agrees. "It's such a fundamental part of our music that any of us can control the direction of it at anytime, which is why I think our live show is pretty consistent. On any given night there's going to be one or two of us that really feel strong enough and confident enough and creative enough to do a lot of the leading. You never really know who it's going to be in a particular song. It's really exciting.

"It's a very energetic thing, especially live. The last few tours we've been really having fun. I think that Nate, Kaveh, and I as a rhythm section, especially with Kaveh and I playing a lot of electronics and effected sounds, really try to think of it as though we're one unit of sound. Often it's difficult even for us to tell with particular tones, who in the band it's coming from. That's really what we aim for, something where we could really get outside of our established personalities as jazz musicians and form a real identity as a band which we fit into in a very particular way.

A listen to Kneebody, only the second release on Dave Douglas' new label, Greenleaf, gives clear context to the musicians' infectious enthusiasm. In the course of 12 original songs, Kneebody makes a strong case for their ear-loving take on 21st century jazz. They don't talk much about the tone color improvisations on "Clime, pt 1., and its easygoing apotheosis on the sweetly nuanced "Clime, pt 2. The restraint and discipline of "Perfect Compromise flows serenely. the ironically titled "Victory Lap could be an introspective interlude of Jason Moran's.

But when someone says, "Alright bitches, and Rastegar's fuzztone bass growls at Wood's busy rhythm party on "Coat Rack, you hear the power. Soon enough Endsley pours hot brass and Wendel gets humid on tenor. A dizzying electronic whirlwind blow around the hard blowing players being beaten silly by Wood's polyrhythmic nail gun. The tight time changing arrangement on "Break Me veers between giddy tropical and runaway train, with concise solos spicing the thrill ride charts. "Never Remember openly bids on Summertime Hit status with a bright rollicking horn arrangement and a face busting bass line right out of the Move's "Feel Too Good. Somewhere in between Endsley contributes a classically beautiful 3 am floor pacer called "Halfway to Scranton. Despite the hype, what electricity was burned only further illuminated the undeniably appealing arrangements.

"You can't escape the instrumentation, says Wendel, "it's a jazz quintet. But we're not playing the traditional music you would associate with a jazz quintet. It's funny how things change over time. I'm playing an instrument from the 1960's. He's playing something else, those same instruments were playing completely different music 50 years ago than they are now. It's kind of fun that way. I like how music inevitably evolves to fit the sounds around it.

"We didn't know how people were going to react to this music because obviously it's not like swing. But it's been positive. I think regardless of what people enjoy aesthetically, it's hard to deny music that's good on an energetic and technical level. These compositions are complex but accessible and you can tell everyone in the band is trained and studied this music. So, for someone just listening to it, or even for a more traditional hardcore jazz fan, generally they have a positive reaction hearing this band.

They've honed their obvious rapport through a lengthy association. "I had gone to Eastman with Ben and Kaveh, recalls Benjamin. "I transferred out of Eastman to CalArts, meant Nate and the whole year I was at CalArts I had this idea of putting the four of us together, because I think it matched up really well stylistically. Luckily it ended up that Ben and Kaveh decided to move to LA after graduating Eastman. Nate was staying here to finish up school and had already been working here a lot. So, we really got to do a lot of regular playing early on, before we even really took the band seriously. We played weekly at a coffee shop at UCLA, later on weekly at the Temple Bar. It was a year or so before we really felt there was a chemistry there, which is strange. Once it hit then we really got excited about composing music for our personalities and developing this new style.

"That was the inception, continues Wendel. "The initial group was all of us minus the trumpet player. We got a residency at the Temple Bar. That was just when the Temple Bar opened, so about 2000 and it was about a year long residency, and that's when that stuff developed. During that same era Shane was touring with Ani De Franco and he came back and recorded an album of all of his compositions. Until the release of this album, all that we had to sell on tour was this Wendel album and Shane's album which is essentially all the same players playing this music which is our sound, but nothing that actually had the name 'Kneebody' on it. It was kind of confusing at first, so we're glad to finally have something out there that's very clear.

"Dave [Douglas] came through Shane. He's the guy in the band who lives in New York. Dave has this yearly thing called the FONT Festival, Festival Of New Trumpets. Basically, it's a residency at a club there called Tonic. Basically, he books the month and brings in different trumpet players that he likes to do their music. He brought in Shane, and we ended up having a tour around that time. It was Kneebody that played. He talked to Shane, he said I'm leaving RCA, I'm going to start this label, do you have anything ready to go, are you interested in getting involved? It was just the timing, we had this album basically ready to go. We sent Dave the rough mixes, and he loved it. It's cool because he's like the dream record label owner, because he's very supportive and very interactive. He in no way tries to affect creative control. So, we were able to do this album completely how we wanted to do it. He's been a great supporter, it's been wonderful in that way.

The resulting album experienced a number of changes in its three years of development. "Theoretically, we're coming out of the jazz thing, says Wendel, "but in terms of how long it took to record the record it's almost like we're a rock band. That record was recorded here and there over a period of three years. It's just one of those things, we've been consistently touring through that whole time. Everybody in the band outside of the band plays in a bunch of other groups and with other touring artists. So it's this thing where, whenever we had a chance to go into the studio for a day or two we would track stuff, and then over the period of those three years certain material would get old, other stuff had to be mixed. Just one of those things. Then, the Dave Douglas opportunity came up, and thankfully we basically had an album's worth of material at that point ready to go.

"We're glad it's finally out, says Benjamin, "it took us a long time to finally make it what we wanted to. We ended up with two, maybe three records worth of material. We were eliminating stuff as fast as we were recording it. It took us three years to get both the product we wanted and the right venue to release it. We have five or six full completely done songs that I think are great, but just didn't quite fit into the album as it was. I really hope we find something to do with them at some point.

"That's been the other cool thing, says Wendel, "it's an independent label, but they have distribution through Koch. It's everywhere, all over the country. It's in Tower Records, Virgin Records. A friend of mine just came off tour and said he saw our album in Idaho! We were featured on NPR's Weekend America last weekend, and we just got notification we've gone from #33 to #25 on the CMJ jazz charts. There's stations all over the country rotating the album.

Their growing popularity and the freshness of their sound makes them prime targets for the Acolytes of the Sacred Jazz Flame. "I think it's a natural thing in society in general that at a certain point a musical genre becomes codified and it becomes a museum piece. Wendel observes. "It's human nature to put things in a museum., which is fine. I'm ecstatic that symphonies still exist, that we still hear music that's 400 years old. That's the thing about jazz in the biggest sense of the word. To me, jazz is not a specific era, like the fifties or the sixties. It's the concept of improvising, which in one way has been around forever, but in another way was a brand new sound that happened in the last hundred years. In that sense, the idea of human interaction through music and spontaneity, that's what we want to carry on, the spirit of what I perceive jazz to be. I think a music is not alive unless people are showing up.

"On all these tours we do clinics. We go to schools from junior high, to high school to colleges, we play with these kids and we have them play with us. And sometimes, we'll do club dates where we'll teach the kids one of our songs and then they'll come to the club and play with us. It's really fun because they have such a great open energy. They're not jaded in any way. I think that's the other way the music is going to cary on, for musicians to pass on the torch to the younger kids. I even remember in high school the few times that a clinician would come in and show what he does and even coach the band. You don't forget those experiences, they have an impact.

"It's a big part of our touring, says Benjamin. "At first, we came up with that mostly as a financial mechanism to finance our tours before we could get significant enough guarantees at clubs to really go on the road and make money from that. But now, over the years it's actually developed into a pretty big part of the identity of the band. I can't really picture going on tour with Kneebody without getting up at 7 in the morning to go to some high school or college on most days. It keeps us in touch with the fundamental aspects of music to have to present it ot a new audience and explain it in certain ways, and literally bring people into it. Have people learn the material and play with us, tryout some of our concepts kind of keeps us constantly reinventing the band, keeping a fresh attitude towards it.

After the years of hard work and determination, the members of Kneebody know their on to something special. "It's got an intellectual aspect to it, and it's complex music, says Wendel, "but we don't want it to be something that only musicians can enjoy. Music is music. The more you play the more you realize that that's kind of a special thing that doesn't happen all the time, a sort of immediate natural level of communication. We said let's keep going with this because it was fun.

Benjamin agrees: "I think we all feel that way, especially living out in Los Angeles there's not a lot of bands doing similar things. When we go to New York City there's more of a feeling of kinship with a number of bands, and there's a movement in music we fit into in a certain kind of way. We dreamed for years coming up through music school of having a band where we could play energetic music that was truly ours and really fun to play, but that was unique and had something to say, and really get a chance to perform with it and take it one the road. I think to get to the point that we have with this record makes us feel very fortunate. We've been pushing hard with this band for 5 years now, it's nice to get some rewards back from it.

"We're hoping that in terms of not compromising it'll end up making the music more soulful and from our hearts, so that in that way it will become actually more accessible even though it'll be a little harder to classify.

Visit Kneebody on the web.

Photo Credit
Nick Perzik

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