One challenge of being a fledgling wordsmith writing about an ephemeral art like jazz seems the near-impossibility of the task. No combination of words and keyclicks, however artful, can put you, gentle reader, in the lion’s den where the music is taking place. Yet this desire remains to transcribe, translate and transmit experience, quite literally, for the morning after – to reconcile that imprint of felt energy and push it out further and deeper into the world. Amidst a sea of empty trends and half-assed cultural mediocrity, I want to advocate for things that are genuinely fresh and real and dare-I-say essential, and hopefully to carry some of the flavor and attitude gleaned from one artistic plane (music) into another (writing). So let’s get to it, already.

Now let me do what I can to spread the good word on the thrillingly hip and vital, LA-based (really?) jazz-funk-new music aggregate Kneebody, collectively dropping unprecedented sounds and exciting audiences in a way I’ve rarely witnessed. Dust off the Encyclopedia Jazztanica and find Kneebody listed under “Future of jazz, hope for the…” As part of a 4-night booking at the new and impossibly cool NYC music venue 45 Bleecker, presented by finger-on-the-pulse, please-let’s-show-them-some-follow-love new jazz series Search & Restore, Kneebody presented two sets last Saturday night: the first featuring vocalist Theo Bleckmann singing unorthodox, jarringly gorgeous avant-jazz renditions of songs by that often-namechecked-but-rarely-understood, Spiritual-Forefather-of-American-Iconoclasticism, Charles Ives, all from a recent Grammy-nominated album; the second, a remarkably heated, intense-yet-loose, set of Kneebody originals. If music is, as Keith Jarrett claims, like nutrition, I feasted in New York. (And not only on Mahmoun’s Falafel.)

In fact, I drove up to NYC from DC with the sole purpose of hearing this show. Having also graduated from that ballyhooed (and much-discussed on this blog, go figure) late 1990s Eastman School of Music jazz program, I remembered the Eastman-bred Kneebodiers well (80% of them, at least – drummer Nate Wood’s playing was a new revelation), and the chance to hear Ives (probably my favorite composer) in a jazz context sold the deal. Neither set disappointed, and the fact that the energy from the two sets felt radically dissimilar is a testament to Kneebody’s musical flexibility.

Y’all know I’ve been trying to write about this “new current” in jazz, about the direction certain modern players are taking in an attempt to keep this music fresh and relevant, and not, as most schools would have it, a mere copy of something that sounded better 50 years ago. I’ve described this as “that Brooklyn sound” – but as discussed with Jason Parker previously, as well as old friend Brian Drye on the phone the other night – this new flava is not geographically bound to NYC – it’s springing up all around the country and even the world. (So who wants to come up with a catchy new name? Jazz needs new branding! Incidentally, the fantastic Rachel Maddow recently ran a fun competition to rebrand the boring “filibuster,” and decided on “The Tarantino” – as in the maneuver that “kills a bill.” Not sure if I buy it, frankly. And “Tarantino jazz” seems a non-starter.)

The new jazz (whatever we call it) Kneebody plays seems to have little to do with academic, textbook approaches (or at least, transcends mere technical matters) and lots to do with tapping into a dual trajectory of unstoppable innovation and contemporary relevance. In the context of jazz history, the ability to touch both of these poles stands as perhaps the sole, consistently unifying characteristic of all of jazz’s major voices; at least up until the 1980s “media darling” phase, the cobwebs of which mainstream jazz seems just beginning to shake off. (The ascendance of Dave Douglas comes to mind.) Kneebody presents one of the most concrete, distilled representations of this new energy, and their whopping artistic and even commercial success (how many avant-jazz groups have been nominated for a Grammy?) proves that this new thing is connecting with listeners. Let’s talk numbers for a second here, not generally something we get to do in jazz circles: over a four-night residency collaborating with a remarkably diverse array of improvising artists, Kneebody packed in close to 200 PER NIGHT. For a music whose harmonic and rhythmic complexity quite simply has no business attracting those sorts of numbers, not to mention young hipsters with cultural cache (and cash) to burn. Take this photo as my Exhibit A.

So what’s going on? We’ve discussed the idea that people want to feel included in the art of their day, and similar to a few daring and commercially successful classical ensembles, this is where the new jazz stands a chance to compete in the cultural marketplace. That said, I can’t imagine 200 people a night coming out to hear someone regurgitating Bird licks, which remains the primary pedagogical approach toward jazz within the academy. (OK, OK, I’ll stop harping on the schools, I swear. It’s just that I think there could be so much potential in well-funded institutions lighting a fire under this music, while in reality I’ve witnessed attitudes that actually extinguish musical innovation and exuberance.)

To its benefit, there’s something in the new jazz which encourages collaboration across multiple artistic platforms. (I recall learning Indian ragas in improvisation classes with Ralph Alessi, and listening to rapper Ice Cube in the first day of Michael Cain’s graduate jazz history class at Eastman.) Kneebody has tapped into this and embraced it as part of their aesthetic. Each evening of their four-night residency at 45 Bleecker featured a different collaboration with a wide range of artists. I saw the Ives show, but was informed about their Friday night show (featuring skullslappingly virtuosic rapper Busdriver) by a former student of mine who had driven up from Virginia solely to see one of his rapping heroes, who, accordingly to Endsley, “cordially meets us more than halfway on our jazz-nerd turf.” Notably, the exposure to new jazz came to my student as an unexpected bonus, and jazz gained a new fan in that transaction. How many modern jazz groups are collaborating with such a wide and diverse array of creative musicians, regardless of whether their music comes from the so-called “jazz” world? Too often today, jazz musicians play within a cocoon of familiarity, seemingly uninterested in expanding their music beyond the safety of their swing and bebop models, yet jazz, historically the ultimate pluralistic music, must compete within a pluralistic society, and I think modern jazz which draws upon non-jazz sources is a very good thing for all involved. And from a historical perspective, if Charlie Parker can play alongside Stravinky’s Firebird, and Coltrane can fall hard for Indian raga, why would jazz musicians NOT be expanding the parameters of their art beyond the limited scope of bebop and hard bop? Regardless of the milieu, collaboration is (or should be) the very purpose of the artistic transaction – connection, community, co-existence. As an actor and director, I experience this in theater all the time, yet all too often, jazz musicians insist on a stultifyingly insular, navel-gazing musical world for themselves.

Enough jazz politics. What of the music?

What struck me during the Charles Ives set was the ways improvised music might mirror that great universal cacophony which Ives loved, perhaps, to a more precise degree that classical musicians forced to play “the notes on the page” could approach. Apart from its blistering polytonal soundscapes, Ives’s musical aesthetic plays most poignantly with psychological memory and the passage of time. (For Ives uninitiates, a good place to start is “The Unanswered Question,” which superimposes musical statements of “the Silences of the Druids—who Know, See and Hear Nothing” with “The Perennial Question of Existence” and “The Invisible Answer.” Obviously, deeply conceptual stuff, and way ahead of its time in terms of innovation.) Forward-thinking classical musicians and musicologists like myself are drawn to Ives – as Kyle Gann offered, “Like flies to roadkill are the musicologists to Ives” – yet notwithstanding an excellent, largely unheralded recording by the NYC-based, avant-jazz group Sideshow a few years back, instances of jazz musicians covering Ives are rare. Thus, forgive my over-spilling of words on this portion of the evening – hearing Ives alongside the creative music of college friends presented a sort of overload of musical interests for me. If Ives was, as his excellent biographer Jan Swafford contends, “the Walt Whitman of sound,” then certainly his aesthetic could be a natural fit for the free-ranging, Whitman-esque sampling found in modern jazz. But how does it sound?

Bleckman’s set opened with the Ives song “Serenity,” featuring glacially moving, repetitive chordal accompaniment from pianist Adam Benjamin, hewing close to Ives’s original arrangement. Sort of a bold choice to begin the set with such a lugubrious song, but I think it helped the audience to become immediately immersed into Ives’s strange, winter-like sonic landscape. “The Cage” quickly turned funky, transforming Ives’s already serpentine melody into a pseudo Middle-Eastern sounding repetitive groove, assisted by Bleckmann’s use of a filter which doubled his voice a 4th above. Though they never got around to playing the gorgeous early Ives song “Feldeinsamkeit” (it’s on the CD!), they did play “Weil’ auf mir.” This song, written by Ives as a student exercise, allowed Bleckmann to display his mastery of German, one of many indications that this singer’s aesthetics borrow as much from classical training as from jazz. Accompanying Ives’s sinewy melody were the bulbous electric bass tones of Kaveh Rastegar, polytonal insinuations from Shane Endsley’s muted trumpet, and light mallet fills from Wood. Perhaps most “Ives-ian” of any of the pieces was Kneebody’s arrangement of Ives’s hymn-based “Shall We Gather At the River,” where Bleckmann’s use of a processing sampler enabled a stunning reflection of Ives’s fascination with non-linear dreamscapes of memory. Beginning the piece by recording himself singing wordless open vowels, Bleckmann deftly blended the tones through his processor into a polyphonic stew, then continued with the strangely disembodied hymn melody, stark in its simplicity. The musicians picked up with portions of the original Ives accompaniment behind the hymn, and the piece ended with Bleckmann reprising the initial loop (-soup?). Hearing this non-linear, inescapable “playing with memory” within the timeframe of one song in a way allowed the audience to experience time tumbling back upon itself – a perfectly modern microcosm of Ives-ian re-interpretation. Similar to the snakey funk treatment of “The Cage,” Kneebody’s madcap version of “The New River” took advantage of the already modern harmonic implications of Ives’s original piano accompaniment, turning the piece into an exploratory free-jazz romp. (Do take in my shoddy camera work on this one.) Nate Wood’s arrangement of “In the Mornin’” (the only Ives song of the set not included in his infamous 114 Songs) began with Endsley’s imaginative off-stage trumpet soloing, then dropped into a slow, fairly standard pop groove, the ease of which allowed the old “Give Me Jesus” hymn to shine through via Bleckmann’s stellar singing. “The See’r” presented a fun, metrically off-kilter exploration of the range of Bleckmann’s “bag of tricks.” Although a lesser singer might easily allow this to easily slip into gimmickry, Bleckmann’s performance aesthetic is always buttressed by a great musical sensitivity and flexibility. “The Housatonic at Stockbridge” (or, “Who’s a Tonic?” in Bleckmann’s jokey dog voice?!) pushed the boundaries of polytonality in a way the cranky Yankee Ives, who once said “You won’t get a wild, heroic ride to heaven on pretty little sounds!,” might have approved of. (Though the jury’s still out on how much Ives actually fancied the jazz contemporaneous to his own time; musicologist Charles Hiroshi Garrett recently wrote a fascinating study of how Ives borrowed elements of ragtime, while at the same time denigrating the genre in published comments.) Ben Wendel’s arrangement of “Songs My Mother Taught Me” began by superimposing Bleckmann randomly tuning the dial on a small transistor radio to various FM stations (perhaps consciously inviting Ives’s great conceptual heir John Cage to the musical seance?), set over Adam Benjamin’s lullaby-inspired waltz accompaniment. The piece built in intensity by Nate Wood’s propulsive, martial snare drum work in ¾, reminiscent of Ravel’s Bolero (anyone remember this great performance?), later assisted contrapuntally by Shane Endsley on cymbals, and sounding for all the world like a march to the gallows. Bleckmann continued to fiddle with the random sounds of the radio while singing the melody, creating a Ives-ian mélange of R&B wailing, Top 40, talk radio, and I swear at one point a man speaking “the planets are with us.” As an encore, the group played Ives’s “Waltz,” which splattered each and every musical technique we’d heard so far into a grand Charles Ives meets Jackson Pollack, Franz Schubert, Stephen Foster, and Ornette Coleman promenade.

Kneebody continued the second set with original compositions, all impressively memorized and internalized by each member of the group. Packed with dissonances, horns smacking around like snare drums, snare drums smacking around like gunfire, drop-on-a-dime changes of feel, meter, and tempo, all abounding. (More shoddy camera work here.) This ain’t your Grandma’s swing music. Yet again, there’s that connection to modern sensibilities – I might offer that rhythm is jazz’s most outwardly underdeveloped component (notwithstanding innovations in swing feel, etc.) – but modern players like Steve Coleman (certainly a major influence on this group) have stretched the boundaries of the ways music can flow over time, and in this sense, the new jazz shares much with hip hop, arguably the most compelling and dynamic pop music around today from a rhythmic perspective. What’s more, the fresh, easy virtuosity of the sort of improvisation practiced by the Kneebodiers draws listeners in via its very newness; although these players most likely grew up on 1950s-60s era jazz, they’ve transcended those influences to create what is very much music of today, and I think that’s a very appealing characteristic for potential listeners.

Each musician within Kneebody brings a highly distinctive voice to the music, and I’m reminded of the ways musicians trained within the Eastman jazz program were encouraged, above all else, to develop an individual perspective and sound. Shane Endsley’s focused, precise trumpet sound, crinkling and snapping like a rattlesnake opening a bag of chips. Comparisons might be made with the intervallic prowess of fellow trumpeters Booker Little or Woody Shaw, but perhaps even more fruitfully, outside of the realm of trumpet players; the polyrhythmic percussiveness of a drummer like Elvin Jones, translated to the horn, comes to mind. (Endsley also switched off to play some fierce drums during the set.) Birthday boy Ben Wendel’s tenor saxophone shrieks with passion and commitment, sharing much with modern players (Bennie Maupin, perhaps?), his rich harmonic vocabulary extending throughout all ranges of the horn. Nate Wood bringing the thunder on the drums, dropping metronomic landmines, rhythmic complexity like dropping a bag of marbles on a porcelain counter. Adam Benjamin’s keyboard playing, groovy and supple, in-the-pocket bursts of smooth energy, extending the vocabulary of Herbie Hancock’s 1970s-era funk. And blogging. (Do check out his legendary, hilarious, tongue-in-cheek standards record, a bullet aimed directly at the hearts of anyone who would dare take this music too seriously.) And finally, Kaveh Rastegar’s unusually prominent electric bass, providing a rudder to the ship, kinetic authority and a deeply felt presence throughout all phases of the music.

As should be expected, the new jazz makes new demands on listeners, yet a distinct, perhaps richer way of hearing and experiencing music is beneficial for both the future of the music and for audiences who (whether consciously or not) actually do want to be challenged. One friend of the acquaintance I brought to the show said that initially she hadn’t wanted to come to the show, which had been billed to her as “experimental” jazz, yet she enthusiastically mentioned she wasn’t finding any of the music “experimental” – which, of course, it unquestionably was! Cloaking this experimentalism amidst forward propelling grooves, rock-solid ensemble lines, and virtuosic, daring improvisation seems to provide an anchor which allows non-specialists to groove right along. Dig?

Phew, long entry. But lots to say. We’re almost done.

Finally, kudos to Nate Chinen of the New York Times for coming out to hear some of this music, and writing about it. And to TimeOut NY. If this music is to prosper, it will need not only institutional support (which if major outlets like Lincoln Center are any indication, tend to be years behind the artistic curve) but mainstream media coverage as well. Kudos to Kneebody for helping to point the way toward an unlimited, thrilling future for this music we all love so dearly. And finally, kudos to you, gentle reader, for reading this far. I imagine you might be the only one?

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