Billy Martin's Wicked Knee Releases 'Heels Over Head'
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."
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.
"Each instrument is just a linear instrument," Martin says of his choice to work exclusively with brass, but Bernstein's expertise in the field of arrangement makes the group feel larger than the sum of its parts. With "Rendezvous," a pensive sketch for the horns, he illustrates how wide the color palette can be for a triad of brass and then washes the whole thing over a driving hard-bop groove on the cinematic "Theme One."
Like all blues-based music, there’s pathos at the heart of Heels Over Head, and "99%" points to the socio-economic reality from which we can all find solidarity and a will to persevere. After Bernstein wrote the changes and the band tracked the tune at an undisclosed church in upstate New York, Martin had Shelley Hirsch come in to adlib lyrics.
"Shelley is one of my favorite improvisers and personalities from the downtown scene,” Martin says. “I directed her to just tell me some stories. It’s sort of like the bad times everyone is going through has an effect on this blues thing. She did a few takes and this is what it turned into. I love her, really love her.”
The White Stripes didn’t even have a bassist, never mind a tubist, but Wicked Knee's take on "The Hardest Button to Button" is a blindside rocker that epitomizes the group's love of double meanings and subverted expectations.
The band name itself was taken from a record compilation of piano rags and blues called Shake Your Wicked Knees. The record's cover art follows suit. Martin's son was leafing through a book of outsider artists and copied a figure from Bill Traylor, the self-taught artist who grew up under slavery. Strutting with tophat and umbrella, the character seems like he could be cakewalking to an early New Orleans brass rag.
“There are several images you can come up with [for Heels Over Head],” Martin jokes of the album 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."
The drummer once described his new group as playing "ragtime funk joints with inappropriate avant-garde interludes to keep everything out of focus." But after 20 years of dreaming, and with a full-length record in the quiver and a European tour on the horizon, Martin says, "In some ways it’s coming into focus. But there's still this ebb and flow. It’s about being open to the surprises and letting it come out, capturing the best moments."