Something Else! Interview: Billy Martin of Wicked Knee, and Medeski Martin and Wood

Accomplished musical alchemist Billy Martin has taken an opportunity away from Medeski Martin and Wood to rekindle an idea he had years ago — combining ragtime and funk with trumpeter Steven Bernstein.

The two met while associated with John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards years ago, but the fates never allowed their transfixing new sound idea to take hold. Until now. Combining with Curtis Fowlkes on trombone and Marcus Rojas on tuba as Wicked Knee, the quartet has just released Heels over Head — a delectable amalgam of strange spices.

Of course, Martin has always been about stirring the proverbial pot — from early stints with Bob Moses and Chuck Mangione, to notable collaborations with everyone from John Zorn and Iggy Pop to DJ Logic and Maceo Parker, to the rhythmnist’s on-going experiments with his shape-shifting avant-jazz/funk home base of Martin Medeski and Wood.

Martin joined us for this new SER Sitdown to discuss Wicked Knee, how these kind of side projects feed into the fizzy creativity of MMW, and whether jazz’s many new amalgams signal the final death knell for bebop …

NICK DERISO: Take me back to the beginnings of Wicked Knee and, specifically, your early relationship with Steven Bernstein.
BILLY MARTIN: Steven and I met during a Lounge Lizards rehearsal. John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards was the downtown cult band in New York. I was asked to join as a percussionist, and that was probably back in ’88, ’89. That’s when I met Steven. We worked together, we toured together, we played together. He played on Medeski Martin and Wood’s Notes from the Underground, the very first record we did. Our relationship just grew. Back in the earlier days, I discussed with Steven this concept of doing something with drums and brass, and he said: “When you’re ready, let’s do it.” (Laughs.) Steven’s always ready. But really, there wasn’t much opportunity to do anything until recently. In the past few years, it sort of opened up for me.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: With 2012's 'Free Magic,' Medeski Martin and Wood showed again how limitless their source of inspirations can be, and yet they retain a trademark avant sound.]

NICK DERISO: I understand the band finally came together when you were doing some soundtrack work for an instructional DVD, Life on Drums.
BILLY MARTIN: I wanted to try to incorporate a little performance with a brass group so Steven called Marcus and Curtis, and we worked on a couple of things that I had some ideas for. What I ended up using on the DVD was this short performance of “Muffuletta,” which is on the record. At that moment, I knew: This is a band. It has a lot to do with the personalities, too. I know these guys. I had worked with all of them. I’d spent time with them. They are seasoned players. They’re New Yorkers, but they’ve played with everybody, all over the world. The chemistry is really important in a band. When that’s right, you have to seize the moment and get behind it. So that was the time to do it.

NICK DERISO: After all of these years, I wonder how things have evolved within Medeski Martin and Wood. Is it difficult to rekindle the creative spark when you get back together — or do projects like Wicked Knee inform the new work?
BILLY MARTIN: We’ve always brought our experiences with other projects and playing with other bands into the Medeski Martin and Wood vocabulary. It’s better, when we get together. We also appreciate each other for who we are. There’s no one like us. We’re unique people. You have a certain chemistry with family or friends, and you go somewhere and you meet other people, and you appreciate certain things about them — the contrasts. So, you come back with even more to share.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REVIEWS: Longtime bandmaes Billy Martin and John Medeski finally got back to the duo-based wellspring that led to Medeski Martin and Wood on 2007's 'Mago.']

NICK DERISO: I also wonder if you could describe why John Scofield’s style of playing has always been such a great fit. When you talk about bringing new voices into the family, he immediately comes to mind. When he’s around, the dynamic of Medeski Martin and Wood seems to change a little bit.
BILLY MARTIN: John is from an older generation — not too much older, but old enough that he can share some of vast vocabulary of experience: For instance, playing with Miles Davis. We share similar loves for groove and song. He taps into a certain thing with us that he can’t get with anybody else, and it’s the same thing with us. He’s John Scofield. It changes the way we play when he is there with his guitar, and it always feels good. For me, a lot of it has to do with his sense of rhythm, and the way he solos — he’s so musical, so melodic. We have a chemistry with him. When he’s around, we’re like a quartet.

NICK DERISO: Explain how the rhythms of folkloric music, from Brazilian to Frankie Malabe and Afro-Cuban, ultimately impacted your style.
BILLY MARTIN: Brazilian music was really a turning point for me. When I first heard samba drumming, that percussive style changed me forever. I started following that path. That’s all I wanted to do for a couple of years, and that’s really just about all I did — absorb myself into the Brazilian scene in New York City. That opened doors to playing with Bob Moses, and Chuck Mangione, and the Lounge Lizards. That really shaped the way I played drums. Frankie Malabe, he taught me Afro-Cuban, Dominican, salsa, mambo, all of these sort of Afro-Carribbean styles of drumming. It really has influenced my playing, because there are so many grooves coming from such a deep place.

NICK DERISO: I hear a lot of 1970s rock ‘n’ roll and R&B in your playing, too. What was on your turntable as a kid?
BILLY MARTIN: There were so many drummers — Al Jackson was one. But, I guess when I really started playing, and playing along with records, it was like the Rolling Stones, James Brown, Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin and then the Police. Those were the band and drummers that I was feeling as a youngster. Then came Ellington, and Count Basie, and all of those records. But it started with John Bonham and Stewart Copeland and Charlie Watts — a great drummer.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Billy Martin of Medeski Martin and Wood fame indulges a long-held passion for New Orleans street music with his fresh new pocket brass band, Wicked Knee.]

NICK DERISO: Al Jackson was a real mind blower, because he seemed to be playing so fast within what in every sense would be described as a ballad. I loved that tension, the way he could be so rhythmic and propulsive within a slow song.
BILLY MARTIN: That’s astute, to notice that. Listening to the music that Al Jackson played on, it became part of what I thought I should do. That’s why I play the way I play, because of drummers like Al. He could shuffle, and have all of these in-between notes, but he could fit it right in, and make it musical — as opposed to just playing as hard as you can.

NICK DERISO: To my ear, your secret weapon in Wicked Knee is Marcus. He’s taking the tuba to places that the old-time New Orleans players, I don’t think, could have imagined.
BILLY MARTIN: Yeah. Marcus is a virtuoso. He can improvise and read, he’s had famous classical-grade composers write concertos for him. He plays on Broadway, he plays in little clubs in downtown New York. He’s improvised with Henry Threadgill, Dr. John. He has such a wide range of influence. He does things that should be outlawed. (Laughs.) I can’t even say where it’s coming from, exactly. Marcus is incredible. He’s got rhythm, and a incredible sound.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Billy Martin's 2012 collaboration with San Francisco-area B-3 specialist Wil Blades gave the drummer another chance to make some hip shaking, foot stomping noise.]

NICK DERISO: As someone who has melded styles from the beginning, right up through to Wicked Knee, I have to ask: Is be bop, in your mind, simply played out?
BILLY MARTIN: I think so, but I could never play it. (Laughs.) I’m not a bebop drummer, so I avoided that. I tried secretly to swing really fast, and play Charlie Parker/Dizzy Gillespie stuff. But even in the 1970s, it was gone. The only places it was happened was in a standard jazz club, or in the schools. I think it’s a vocabulary that is awesome. It’s a great way of playing — and John (Medeski) and Chris (Wood) can play their asses off in bebop. So they use it. You can hear it in some of our music. It was just never my thing, so I found my way to swing in another way. Be bop is not happening now; that already happened. But it branched off. It’s still alive in a certain way, but I wouldn’t go to a be bop concert to learn something new. That’s an old pastime.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has also explored music for publications like USA Today, Gannett News Service, All About Jazz and Popdose for nearly 30 years. Honored as newspaper columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section that was named Top 10 in the nation by the AP in 2006. Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.