Plus: The Juke Joint Brass Band
Billy Martin (drums)
Curtis Fowlkes (trombone)
Marcus Rojas (tuba)
Steven Bernstein (trumpet)
“I like to think of it as a juke joint band, if there is such a thing,” says Billy Martin about his new quartet, Wicked Knee. Martin, for the past two decades the drummer of the genre-busting trio Medeski Martin & Wood, wanted his new project to be something completely different. With a lineup consisting solely of trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, tuba player Marcus Rojas, trumpeter Steven Bernstein and Martin serving as his own rhythm section, comparisons to anything that have come before are unlikely. Martin calls Wicked Knee “ragtime funk,” and one listen to the band’s debut self-titled EP confirms that his description is spot-on.
“Wicked Knee,” says Martin, “is cathartic, heart-based and primarily intended for situations that invite people to let go, throw down, get down and have fun. And we add avant-garde interludes as release and tension.” Martin came up with Wicked Knee’s unusual configuration because, he explains, “I have always wanted to work with brass and drums but never had the time or the nerve to make it happen.
Prior to forming Wicked Knee, Martin had worked on several projects with Bernstein, who is highly respected within New York’s downtown scene and beyond, with his groups Sex Mob and the Millennial Territory Orchestra, and as a sideman with a long list of artists ranging from Aretha Franklin and Sting to jazzmen Sam Rivers and Roswell Rudd. Martin had only performed a few times with Rojas—whose credits include his bands Spanish Fly and Les Miserables Brass Band, as well as gigs with Michael Jackson, Ray Charles, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Queen Latifa and many others—mostly in live performances. Fowlkes, a longtime fixture on the New York scene, who has performed with the Lounge Lizards, the Jazz Passengers, Charlie Haden, John Zorn and others, was the perfect player to round out the lineup.
Of forming an ensemble with Martin, Bernstein notes, ” Wicked Knee is a magical combination of musicians…taking the idea of a brass band to brand new places. Head music for your body.”
Although the sound of Wicked Knee bears little in common with Medeski Martin & Wood, Martin has no doubt that fans of the older group will be able to feel the groove. “In relation to my work with MMW, it’s really about balancing out everything I have done,” Martin says. “Wicked Knee is the antidote to MMW. I am more of a leader in this band and I want my own pure vision to come out with the help of these incredible individuals.
“Billy’s concept for the pocket brass band is open to myriad influences,” says Fowlkes. “From Congolese to avant-garde, Wicked Knee takes a fresh approach.”
“This is such a collective experience,” Martin adds. “I couldn’t do this as a solo artist. There is no electricity and no chordal instruments in this band. It’s the perfect balance to what MMW does. I would never want anything to get in the way of what I have with Medeski, Martin and Wood, but I think it is time to start something new. This is quite unique instrumentally and the four personalities really work together in a way that has never been done before, to my knowledge. When you realize you have a band where all the personalities define the whole, you need to get behind it and invest that energy fully. This is a real band.”
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