For those looking for more of Billy Martin’s well-established sound as part of the next-gen jazz trio Medeski Martin and Wood, this new title is likely perfectly named. Turns out Martin has long had a passion for New Orleans street music. It just took him some two decades to get around to forming a pocket brass band.
Back then, an idea that would one day — though it was, alas, one day far into the future — become Billy Martin’s Wicked Knee started with a conversation between the drummer and trumpeter Steven Bernstein. Nothing became of their notion of creating a small-group brass combo, however, and Bernstein could next be found rewiring the big-band aesthetic in groups like the Millennial Territory Orchestra.
Fast forward to the creation phase for Martin’s DVD Life on Drums, and all of the sudden their idea was reborn. Martin assembled a group for that film which included Bernstein, trombone player Curtis Fowlkes and tuba player Marcus Rojas, and together in Martin’s backyard they created “Muffaletta” — a crack-back stomper that’s also included on the new Heels over Head, an 11-track effort just issued by Amulet Records.
The timing, by then, was right for a larger project. The chemistry with Fowlkes (Bill Frisell, Lounge Lizards) and Rojas (John Zorn, Spanish Fly), it’s clear, all but demanded a full-length project, as well.
See, though Martin’s name is prominently featured, Wicked Knee is very much a band effort. Everyone contributes musically, and each in his own way helped shape the final project: Rojas brought along “Ghumba Zumba,” a fiercely undulating delight from Frank London, while Bernstein had “Sugarfoot Stomp” — and injected a smart arranging style that ranges from the closed-fist hard-bop of “Theme One” to the lonely quietude of the horns-only “Rendezvous.”
Just as importantly, while each of the players here clearly has an affection for this brass tradition, they’re not afraid to push against its conventional edges — and hard.
Wicked Knee mixes it up on the darkly mysterious “Chaman’s Interlude,” this shimmering showcase for Martin, and add a hip ad-libbed vocal from Shelley Hirsch on “99%” — further solidifying the album’s Bourbon Street-by-way-of-downtown-NYC vibe. They are brash, and talented, enough to funk up the White Stripes’ “Hardest Button to Button,” and then travel down a twilit Eastern path on the closing “Noctiluca.”
Heels over Head, in this way, never stops fiddling with your expectations. That’s in sharp contrast with the average brass-band album these days — which portray themselves as a party in a jewelcase, all while ultimately becoming a hollow genre exercise. We can only hope that it’s not another 20 years before Wicked Knee returns with the follow up to this savvy — and endlessly entertaining — take on the Crescent City’s age-old traditions.