25th Anniversary San Francisco Jazz Festival
Great American Music Hall, San Francisco, California
November 7, 2007
While yesterday's jazz greats had swing, bebop, and hard bop forming the core of their influences, the young improvisers of today have been brought up with a whole spectrum of musical influences, traditions and styles. From electronic music to hip hop to hard rock, the new generation of musicians soaks up everything around it and comes up with many nice surprises. Kneebody, a band of LA-based musicians, is a perfect example of a genre-defying fresh new sound. Performing recently as part of the San Francisco Jazz Festival, the group was featured on a concert program subtitled "New Discoveries. Although many fans of more straight-ahead, mainstream jazz might have been put off by the aggressive, abrasive, even "noisy" approach of Kneebody, no one could deny that the group has carved out a sound completely its own, taking the improvisational spirit that jazz fans love and mixing it with an arresting, multi-faceted aesthetic at once refreshing and challenging.
After a brief intro, the band went into a pulsing, rhythmic piece focusing more on composition than improvisation. At times the five members seemed to have their own individual rhythmic agendas, with melodies and chords dancing around each other in a manner echoing Steve Reich's minimalist compositions.
Most of the set was aimed in a similar direction, each tune an unpredictable series of grooves some of which resonated with the dark soundscapes of Radioheadgloomy and textured but with Kneebody's signature harmonic and rhythmic complexity. The penultimate tune (for this listener the most exciting number on the program) started with trumpeter Shane Endsley playing a lyrical, fanfare-like passage with Arabic flavors. Picking up a cue in the melody, percussionist Nate Wood began with some cymbal-concentrated drumming, laying down the first in a long series of morphing grooves while the horns followed closely, playing rhythmically tight melodies and creating oxymoronically sweet-sounding dissonances.
At times the rhythm section sounded like Metallica trying to play funk, or perhaps The Family Stone attempting metal. Saxophonist Ben Wendel's solo was frantic yet calculated, incantatory yet interesting, as he stamped out unique phrases that seemed almost intentionally unsatisfying.
It can be extremely difficult to tell how much of a Kneebody performance is improvised and how much is composed. The group is known for using a series of pre-planned musical cues to get from one groove to the next, or to change tempos, to modulate to a different key, or to signal certain members to drop out as well as come in. Such "planned spontaneity" lends itself to a fascinating, albeit sometimes enigmatic, sort of group improvisation that in turn creates the impression of the song practically playing itself. The tune "Coat Rack," for example, though well-known to listeners of the band's first album, had an extended solo section after the head, unlike the sequence of solos and soloists on the recorded track. Keyboardist Adam Benjamin growled frantically on his distorted Rhodes over a bed of distorted bass and back-beat (occasionally break-beat) drums. When they went back into the head, the tempo was twice as fast and the rhythm a galloping, ping- pongy groove that the whole band contributed to with seemingly nonchalant precision.
At the same time, the Kneebody that so many followers of the LA music scene has grown to lovethe group that used to play a weekly gig at a small Santa Monica club called The Vic, employing more of their signature cues more frequently while taking the songs to looser, more stretched-out, free-form realms with exhilarating solos and heady compositionswas less in evidence on this occasion. Perhaps it was the crowd and the nature of the event a sit-down concert rather than an informal gig at a small local venuethat made the musicians tailor their music to a more general audience, providing easy-to-digest songs exhibiting their sound at the expense of some of the unpredictable energy.
Kneebody was, as always, engaging if not captivating, especially for anyone new to their music. A fan accustomed to their "older" sound may have wanted to catch some riskier, extemporaneous playing from the group and the soloists alike but, as always, the band displayed its distinctive approach to instrumental, improvised music. They captured the spirit of Bird, Monk, Coltrane and Sun Ra but reflected the cutting- edge sounds and styles of a new millennium.
Personnel: Adam Benjamin, Fender Rhodes; Shane Endsley, trumpet; Kaveh Rastegar, electric bass; Ben Wendel, sax; Nate Wood, drums.