Twenty years after Billy Martin asked Steven Bernstein to help him hatch a freaky avant brass band, Wicked Knee delivers their triumphant full-length debut, Heels Over Head. The 11-track recording, available today from Martin’s own Amulet Records, brings together four of the New York City downtown jazz scene’s most legendary improvisers, which along with Martin on drums and Bernstein on trumpet, features Curtis Fowlkes on trombone and Marcus Rojas on tuba. The resulting effort is a collection of tunes guaranteed to drop jaws and move feet from the New York juke joint to the New Orleans street corner.
“I’ve always had this seed planted,” says Martin, whose musical friendship with trumpeter Bernstein stretches back to their early days in John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards. “It always made sense to have a small, pocket brass group.”
Listen to a cover of The White Stripes classic “The Hardest Button to Button.”
Plans were put on hold for a couple decades, though, when Martin got sidetracked reinventing the jazz combo with a little trio called Medeski Martin & Wood, and Bernstein rebuilt the notion of the big band with Sexmob and the Millennial Territory Orchestra. The idea finally had its day when Martin needed a brass group to complete a segment for his anti-instructional DVD Life on Drums. Trombonist Curtis Fowlkes (Lounge Lizards, Jazz Passengers, Bill Frisell) and tubist Marcus Rojas (Spanish Fly, John Zorn, Michael Jackson) assembled in Martin’s backyard and “Muffaletta” was born. The funky ode to the traditional New Orleans sandwich gets strutted out for its full value on the new disc, simultaneously framing the genre from which the group draws its formula while letting plenty of its juicy innards spill out over the edges.
Tunes like Bernstein’s “Sugarfoot Stomp” and Frank London’s “Ghumba Zumba,” which Rojas brought to the group, double-down on the quartet’s second-line sensibilities, but traditional counterpoint melodies and ragtime syncopations are only the jumping-off point for a group of musicians baptised in the fires of the New York avant garde. Any sonic limitations you might expect from three horns and a drummer are cast aside for “Chaman’s Interlude” and “Noctiluca,” ethereal improvisations that find Rojas droning two notes simultaneously, Bernstein casting his horn through echo and delay and Martin having his way with a trunk full of percussion, including the eerie bowed waterphone.
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