Kneebody @ The Blue Whale- 3/16/12

There are a lot of bands and musicians trying to stake their claim in the new musical landscape, and a lot of gimmicks being employed to further those efforts. The grassroots hype machine so expertly developed by indie rock has been adapted by jazz bands trying to coerce young listeners to leave the confines of pop and explore more experimental music. One band riding a huge wave of this hype is Kneebody.  The quintet rolled into L.A. for a three night stand at The Blue Whale, and I made the arduous trek downtown for night two.

The Blue Whale has been open for just a couple years, but is already one of the top two or three jazz clubs in L.A.  A lot of that has to do with the sad lack of good jazz clubs in town, but the folks at the Blue Whale were smart in identifying an underserved sliver of the market- young fans who gravitate towards music that exists around the edges of the genre. In the last few weeks they’ve had sets from Ben Williams, Tim Berne and Scott Amendola.

Firmly in that modern, experimental vein is Kneebody. The quintet has been climbing the ranks since forming in 2001, releasing a steady stream of studio and live recordings to both critical and audience acclaim. Recent mentions in the Downbeat Readers Poll add “real jazz” credibility, but more impressive was the crowd at their show last Saturday night. The room was packed, which is notable enough for a relatively experimental jazz show in L.A., but more remarkable was the number of young people in attendance. Of the 200 or so people there, at least 30 or 40 were under 21 (clearly marked by the big black X’s on their hands). There was an excitement for this show normally reserved for whoever the “it” indie rock band of the moment is. I saw one young fan with an 8×10 glossy of the band, trying to get autographs, and there were several young, cute girls getting all googly eyed over the members of the band- members of a jazz band.

The band kicked in and right away, the energy in the room intensified.  Things were a little muddy at first, with the overdriven bass fighting for sonic space with the lower register of the keys. Nate Wood’s drums were crisp and jarring, cutting through the low-end mud to propel the horns through the first few tunes. Things began to clear up on “Cha Cha”, a new song to be featured on one of two upcoming studio albums.

Kaveh Rastegar’s bass feels like a cross between Chris Wood and Mark Sandman, grooving and grinding. The sound is huge for a jazz group, more like what you’d expect from a grunge band, but the compositions rely on the churning bass to anchor the winding melodies.

On this night, Ben Wendel on sax was the strongest soloist in the group, and a long unaccompanied exploration from him was the highlight of the first set. On trumpet, Shane Endsley employs effects pedals differently than any horn player I’ve heard, using them as tools rather than novelties. His use of a Whammy harmony pedal on “Word Hard, Play Hard, Towel Hard” was truly brilliant.

The group’s crossover appeal is clear- their whole set built and released like a rock show. Standard jazz forms were forgotten in favor of prog and third stream composition, but the seed of improvisation was present throughout. If I were pressed, I wouldn’t really call this jazz, but who really cares? Labels mean less now than at anytime in the history of recorded music, and bands like Kneebody are perfectly poised to take advantage of that new found freedom. It should come as no surprise that musicians are eager to break free of categorization, that urge is as old as categorization itself. What was surprising, end encouraging, was how many music fans were ready to celebrate that freedom with them. If that doesn’t give you hope for the future, I’m not sure what could.


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