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Kneebody Present a Democratic Collective's Mix of Jazz and Rock

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Jazz is traditionally a music of names and hierarchy. This goes back to great bandleaders like Ellington and Basie, but also applies to many smaller groups today where you get the Vijay Iyer Trio, David S. Ware Quartet, Wayne Shorter Quartet, or even simpler tags like Sonny Rollins or Herbie Hancock. Nonetheless, there have been notable exceptions to this premise of leadership with groups such as the Modern Jazz Quartet, Weather Report, the Bad Plus and Kneebody.

Kneebody is a New York/Los Angeles quintet of thirtysomethings that have been kicking around for 10 years. Featuring keyboardist Adam Benjamin, trumpeter Shane Endsley, electric bassist Kaveh Rastegar, saxophonist Ben Wendel and drummer Nate Wood, the band has always had the same lineup, honing its vision into something that hovers in the worlds of jazz and rock while tossing in other genre elements, as well.

“We are a democratic equally owned-and-operated band with shared ownership and leadership," Endsley points out. “Everyone brings in music and everyone votes on everything. Musically, it's a band because it's always been just the five of us."

The band returns now with its third album, 'You Can Have Your Moment,' which is an excellent new 12-song collection. To rock fans, the new offering invites easy comparisons to Tortoise and other post-rock bands thanks to Kneebody's muscular sound, interest in tricky and sometimes downright complicated songwriting, and a willingness to eschew vocals. At the same time, jazz fans will hear a different set of touchstones. There's an element of jazz fusion (without the wankiness) thanks to electric bass and keys that creates a strong groove. Of course, improvisation is at a premium as well; yet, the band also takes into account some modern acoustic jazz's interest in bold melody and innovative sense of harmony.

“I like this band because we're loud," Endsley says, weighing in on the matter. “If you want to talk a little bit, that's fine, because our sound is going to bury you. Have some fun. At the same time, the audience is tuned in if the music is engaging. I like the old-school concept that people can walk in and say hi to a friend they see, unlike jazz clubs now where you have to sneak in and be quiet on the way to the table and hope that your chair doesn't squeak."

That isn't to say that the group hides behind a wall of sound. Four of the five band members met at the Eastman School of Music and some have gone on to get secondary music degrees. The quintet's ventured into avant-garde and classical with vocalist Theo Bleckman on its last album in 2008, which was the Grammy-nominated (in the Classical Crossover category) 'Twelve Songs by Charles Ives.'

Kneebody have also created a language based on musical cues whereby any musician can play one at any time to change the music's tempo, key or song. Different bands have different strategies for conveying ideas and moving the music and improvisations forward; Kneebody's have gotten complicated and nuanced, making it downright tricky if the quintet ever has to bring in a temporary replacement. According to Endsley, that's the downside of being in a leaderless band—everyone needs to be there for it to work right, which can be complicated with members on two coasts with all of them working on outside the band as well. That being said, no one in the band would change anything.

“We've enjoyed the changes we've gone through," Endsley says with obvious pride. “We've gone out and done different gigs with different people and then come back together. This variety of professional experience makes it feel like our music is really growing and changing over the years. The band sounds and plays a lot differently and a lot better now than starting out a few years ago."

This ongoing sense of friendship serves both the band and the band concept well. It's a chemistry between the members, but it's also something more than that. Drawing inspiration from rock and pop worlds—which some members are very active in—the group's objective is to make its music as enjoyable to listen to by the audience as it is for the members to play.

“For us I think the most important thing is for people to feel pulled in by the music and enjoy it on a personal level," Endsley says. “Our music is what it is, but we want to extend a welcoming hand even if people come in and don't know exactly what is going on. I feel like some people are afraid to listen to jazz because they feel like they have to know what's going on. And if you don't know what's going on, you just don't get it. I hope that we in the jazz world get better at that."

This story appears courtesy of All About Jazz @ Spinner.
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