A musical group consisting of only horns and drums? If this conjures images of the high school marching band you skipped for a smoke behind the bleachers, allow the unorthodox and exceptionally creative Wicked Knee to dissuade you of that allusion.
The quartet is the brainchild of drummer Billy Martin, one-third of the acclaimed jazz trio Medeski, Martin and Wood.
“A group with just drums and brass was something I wanted to experiment with for a long time,” Martin said.
Of his bandmates — Curtis Fowlkes on trombone, Marcus Rojas on tuba and Steve Bernstein on trumpet — Martin said, “These are the guys I’ve always wanted for this kind of group. I’ve known them all for nearly 30 years.”
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Wicked Knee pushes the boundaries of what a trumpet, trombone, tuba and drums can conventionally perform. The ensemble features no instruments traditionally used for playing chords — no piano, no guitar, no bass. This is rare in jazz, but it can be done, and it can be done well.
“You have to really break down the essence of a composition,” Martin said. “You have to know counterpoints — how musical lines move together or against one another. You have to know flexibility in melody. It’s very challenging, but exciting. Also, it’s the root of old ragtime jazz. Those groups rarely featured a piano or guitar.”
Not content with simply playing ragtime, however, Wicked Knee’s new release, “Heels Over Head,” covers a variety of styles, including Latin (“Ghumba Zumba,” “Canta yno Llores”), early 1960s Blue Note bop (“Theme One”) and funk (“Muffaletta”). There is a lively reading of the White Stripes’ “Hardest Button to Button,” and new vigor is injected into “Sugarfoot Stomp,” a King Oliver tune from 1925. The album’s most arresting moments arrive with “99%” and “Noctiluca.”
The former features the record’s lone vocal — a seductive and jarring performance by singer Shelley Hirsch as a white woman seeking acceptance with the African-American-conscious movement.
The latter is a six-and-half-minute ambient-tone poem, with Martin playing a waterphone, a resonator bowl adorned with bronze rods, while the horn players conjure strange sounds alongside him.
“The reaction to ‘Heels Over Head’ has been positive,” Martin said. “At the end of the day, though, it’s about making the music that you want to make.”
It’s all in a day’s work for Martin, a forward-thinking and in-demand percussionist whose travels have yielded some of the coolest stories in pop music (“Medeski, Martin & Wood backed Iggy Pop on a French television special,” he recalled. “Johnny Depp sat in with us on ‘Nightclubbing.’ ”) In addition to his work in various ensembles, he has taken to scoring films; his latest projects are compositions for “Mirage,” a Hungarian western.
Wicked Knee will tour through the remainder of 2013. Medeski, Martin and Wood head to Europe next summer with guitarist Nels Cline and will be back in the States by autumn with guitarist John Scofield. There are no plans for the two groups to collaborate — at the moment.
“It would make,” Martin said, “a very cool double bill.”