"I like to think of it as a juke joint band, if there is such a thing," says Billy Martin about his new quartet, Wicked Knee. To which we can only respond, well, if there wasn't one, there is now.
Martin, for the past two decades the drummer of the genre-busting trio Medeski Martin & Wood, wanted his new project to be something completely different from what his fans are accustomed to hearing from him. With a lineup consisting solely of trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, tuba player Marcus Rojas, trumpeter Steven Bernstein and Martin serving as his own rhythm section, comparisons to anything that have come before are unlikely. Martin calls Wicked Knee "ragtime funk," and one listen to the band's debut self-titled six-song (plus bonus track) EP confirms that his description is spot-on.
"Wicked Knee," says Martin, "is cathartic, heart-based and primarily intended for situations that invite people to let go, throw down, get down and have fun. And we add avant-garde interludes as release and tension."
Martin came up with Wicked Knee's unusual configuration because, he explains, "I have always wanted to work with brass and drums but never had the time or the nerve to make it happen. I knew I had it when I asked Steven to help me get a few players together for Life on Drums (Martin's educational, anti-instructional DVD out on Vongole Films). I wanted to have some brass with a previously recorded drumbeat. That ended up in the film as 'Muffaletta,' a very short last performance. After finishing that project I realized this was my new band. I have listened to a lot of field recordings from all over the African continent and there are very powerful groups that use horns or wind and drums. That's what got me excited initially."
Prior to forming Wicked Knee, Martin had worked on several projects with Bernstein, who is highly respected within New York's downtown scene and beyond, with his groups Sex Mob and the Millennial Territory Orchestra, and as a sideman with a long list of diverse artists ranging from Aretha Franklin and Sting to jazzmen Sam Rivers and Roswell Rudd. Martin had only performed a few times with Rojas-whose credits include his bands Spanish Fly and Les Miserables Brass Band, as well as gigs with Michael Jackson, Ray Charles, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Queen Latifa and many others-mostly in live performances. Fowlkes, a longtime fixture on the New York scene, who has performed with the Lounge Lizards, the Jazz Passengers, Charlie Haden, John Zorn and others, was the perfect player to round out the lineup.
Of forming an ensemble with Martin, Bernstein notes, "Billy and I have been playing music together for 20 years...we have been talking about putting together a project for about 15 of those. Wicked Knee is a magical combination of musicians...taking the idea of a brass band to brand new places. Head music for your body."
The band name, Wicked Knee, was inspired, says Martin, "from a record compilation my wife's friend had called Shake Your Wicked Knees. I borrowed that compilation, which is a collection of piano rags, blues and stomps, and I loved the vibe and the title. I like that it is born out of an Afro- American expression but has a slight surreal meaning. I like titles that can have multiple interpretations and keep that mysterious thing going."
Of the six tracks on the EP, half are Martin-penned originals and the other three are covers. "El Ritmo," which was written by Lee Collins, was the initial impetus behind Martin's brainstorm to form a band with Bernstein. "Yasisa Bambuta" is a Congolese tune by Rosalie Diop, and "Am I Blue" is the old Ike and Tina Turner classic, presented on the EP in a full-length five-and-a-halfminute version and a shortened take lasting just over three minutes.
Of the original material, "Remington 411" originated, says Martin, "when I was experimenting with a bass clarinet quartet named Edmund Welles while I was 'Artist in Residence' last year at Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, California. Then I further developed it at Camp MMW with a student ensemble. Finally, I worked it out during Wicked Knee's recording session, adding DJ Olive on as an extra dimension for that '70s detective TV theme vibe. 'Remington 411' came out of what I was reading at the time, Patti Smith's Just Kids book. She had a Remington typewriter so it's got a typewriter/gun-type affiliation."
The under-two-minute "Cry" is another Martin composition. Martin first performed it with a bass clarinet quartet and then had Bernstein overdub trumpet; Martin also overdubbed his drums. The final original, "Congo March," is brief at just over two minutes but packs a wallop, giving all four musicians a chance to blow furiously.
Although the sound of Wicked Knee bears little in common with Medeski Martin & Wood, Martin has no doubt that fans of the older group will be able to feel the groove. "In relation to my work with MMW, it's really about balancing out everything I have done," Martin says. "Wicked Knee is the antidote to MMW. I am more of a leader in this band and I want my own pure vision to come out with the help of these incredible individuals.
"Billy's concept for the pocket brass band is open to myriad influences,â€ says Fowlkes. "From Congolese to avant-garde, Wicked Knee takes a fresh approach."
"This is such a collective experience," Martin adds. "I couldn't do this as a solo artist. There is no electricity and no chordal instruments in this band. It's the perfect balance to what MMW does. I would never want anything to get in the way of what I have with Medeski, Martin and Wood, but I think it is time to start something new. This is quite unique instrumentally and the four personalities really work together in a way that has never been done before, to my knowledge. When you realize you have a band where all the personalities define the whole, you need to get behind it and invest that energy fully. This is a real band."