A fusion band started by teenagers who each went on to make their own mark in jazz and other music forms is bound to forge their own identity by the time they reach their thirties. Kneebody, now twelve years running, has that identity. Formed by fellow students of the Eastman School of Music and Cal Arts, Adam Benjamin (Rhodes and synths), Shane Endsley (trumpet), Kaveh Rastegar (electric bass and guitar), Ben Wendel (tenor sax) and Nate Wood (drums) have built their reputations both inside and outside the band.
So yes Kneebody plays fusion, but not quite like anybody else. The reason for their uniqueness doesn’t always jump out but a clue can be found by zeroing in on what Wood is doing, and his unconventional beats. Endsley and Wendel, meanwhile, work as a perfectly fitting unit, and they often speak the language of jazz. Even when they’re not, they play with the craftiness and coaction of jazz musicians. Benjamin and Rastegar give the sound its darker, frazzled edges. The shadings of post-rock are there but so are the musicianship and the probing, wide-open composing befitting their jazz backgrounds.
Moreover, this is a band in practice, not just in theory; no one performer dominates, and everyone but Wood contributes songs, too.
Their fourth effort, The Line, is coming out next week, and as it is with every new album, there’s a new label. This one is being handled by their most prominent one yet, Concord Records, and Concord even brought in their A&R Director Chris Dunn, Sr., to produce it. But right from the extra crunchy Rhodes and the bellowing backbeat of the drums and a menacing bass that send off the opening track “Lowell,” the small-label underdog mentality reigns over these sessions.
“Cha-Cha” is about as clever as contrapuntal gets from a small combo. After one funky pattern is played out, Wood switches rhythms as Endsley and Wendel change their own counteracting lines. Wood moves into a sort of modified second line pattern for the bridge. Endsley, who wrote the tune, takes on a solo that has the same kind of tone and character as Dave Douglas. Benjamin’s aforementioned rough edges come to fore on tunes like “Trite,” where amidst a galloping beat, he show lead guitar ambitions on a vintage synthesizer.
The teamwork of Endsley and Wendel work to shape the signature sound like a new generation Brecker Brothers. They pair up and peel off for frenetic horn pattern posited on Wood’s circular tempo on “Still Play,” and on the dark ballad “Sleeveless,” they paint a deceptively simple, soft flowing texture. The intro section of “Work Hard, Play Hard, Towel Hard” is a great moment for Endsley and Wood; Endsley is playing his trumpet as if he’s a second drummer to Wood. Afterwards, Wendel’s electronically modified sax plays along with the drummer over a tough beat. Wood seemingly invents a new rhythm for each tune, and the odd, uneven beats he devised for “Greenblatt” and “What Was” coexisting with ghostly, malleable motifs are among his most compelling ones.
There are also occasions when these Millennials like to indulge a bit in the rock of their generation, and “The Line” sweats like a rock song. Wood is a heavy presence as is Rastegar’s bass; even Benjamin gets his Rhodes down low; this tune is a thumper. “Ready, Set Go” with its unrelenting throb and garage band mentality, is the one that most emulates indie rock. Still, a sophisticated arrangement lurks underneath that veneer.
New record, new label, same old teenaged “can-do-anything” attitude, Kneebody still puts all of its genre-blurring, risk-taking music on The Line.