Kneebody and Misteriosos: Updating the tradition

PDX Jazz Festival bands bring classic jazz approaches into the 21st century

by PATRICK McCULLEY

At the beginning of Kneebody’s February 18 PDX Jazz Festival concert, only four of the five bandmates walked out on stage at Portland’s Newmark Theatre. Saxophonist Ben Wendel announced, to the amusement of everyone, that their bassist had had to go play a gig with “some guy named John Legend.” Their solution to this challenge left drummer Nate Wood with the unenviable task of playing the bass and drums simultaneously. It was really anyone’s guess as to how this would turn out.

I’ve been listening to Kneebody since 2005, ever since that fateful day my college jazz combo instructor spent the last 15 minutes of class exposing us to new music. With its synthesized sounds, funky percussion, and electronically altered horns, sounded unlike many jazz ensembles I’d ever listened to.

Despite performing on a bleak February afternoon, the band delivered music that was dark sometimes, but never dreary, with a composite of acoustic, electric, and synthesized sounds that encroach on emotional boundaries that most jazz (or music) doesn’t often get to. The quintet — keyboardist Adam Benjamin, trumpeter Shane Endsley, electric bassist Kaveh Rastegar (kind of, see the following paragraph), saxophonist Ben Wendel and drummer Nate Wood — opened with the first track from their new album Anti-Hero, For the Fallen. Benjamin’s dark tapestry of synthesized keyboard and fender rhodes built a foundation for horn players to weave provocative melodies and Wood to lay down driving rhythmic grooves. It soon became apparent that Wood had no problem playing drums and bass at the same time.

Wood pulled double duty with Kneebody at PDX Jazz Festival. Mark Sheldon.

Any more skepticism was soon laid to rest during their performance of Drum Battle. Written for a recent collaboration with electronic musician Daedalus, it started out light and swinging, only to transition abruptly into a complicated series of funky rhythmic patterns in 5/4, 12/8, and ¾. It was somewhere during Wood’s insane drum solo, a solo that increased in speed so much that the horn players could barely keep up when the melody re-entered, that I was stunned to realize that he was still playing the bass with just his left hand.

The entire set was filled with virtuosic playing of that caliber from every musician in the band, especially Wendel, whose technique and creativity as an improviser are incredible. I had hoped though for more solo showcases for the other players, but Wood and Wendel in particular seemed to dominate. The ensemble’s performances and compositions were remarkably solid, and you could tell they enjoyed every minute they spent playing together. The musicians were at their best during the rest of the set, which included songs such as Mikie Lee, a melodious requiem written for a friend of Benjamin’s who’d died of cancer.

Kneebody’s Wendel and Endsley performed at PDX Jazz Festival. Photo: Mark Sheldon.

Another impressive thing about Kneebody is their willingness to engage their audience politically. Endsley, before playing their last song, the title track Anti-Hero, reminded the audience that the “tomorrow is the 75th anniversary of FDR’s order to intern Japanese people here in the United States during World War II” and to “look out for our friends and neighbors, let them know that we do support people from other countries.” For Kneebody, blending politics and music was no harder and no less satisfying than simultaneously playing bass and drums.

Misteriosos

The 2017 PDX Jazz Festival closed February 26 at Alberta Abbey with a performance by Misteriosos, a one-time assembly of West Coast musicians including Jenny Scheinman on violin and vocals, Rob Burger on piano and accordion, Portlanders Mary-Sue Tobin and Lee Elderton on saxophones, Todd Sickafoose on bass, and Stephen Pancerev on drums. The instrumentation proved eclectic in the best way, taking advantage of arrangements by Portland’s Mark Orton to provide a setting that played to the strengths of all instrumentalists, especially the violin and accordion, which are too often left out of the jazz genre.

Another too-rarely heard jazz element is the Thelonious Monk-inspired music of the late saxophonist, composer, and MacArthur Fellow Steve Lacy. So it was intriguing to hear that a group of local musicians had gotten together to pay tribute to his music and Monk’s.

Misteriosos assembled for the 2017 PDX Jazz Festival. Photo: Mark Sheldon.

The opening set was well performed but a bit stiff. During their performance of Thelonious Monk’s Evidence, piano, drums, and instruments playing the melody seemed ever so slightly out of sync. Any awkwardness disappeared during the solo sections, as Sickafoose’s steady walking bass had no trouble grounding the ensemble and laying down the beat. During the recap of the melody at the end, it helped keep everyone in sync at the end of the song.

Misteriosos’ sets displayed a variety of instrumentation combinations and arrangements. In the first set, Tobin and Elderton played a Lacy duet for two soprano saxophones. Scheinman brought one of her own tunes, Matt’s Delight, and performed it as a trio with Burger and Sickafoose. Bouncy, quirky, and swinging, and imbued with a special Monk-inspired quality, it was definitely the highlight of the first set, as it was.

In the second set, Scheinman took the lead once more in a trio with Sickafoose and Pancerev in Lacy’s vibrant and asymmetric The Window. Later Burger’s sensitive accordion lent a special poignancy and melancholy to a trio with Sickafoose and Pancerev.

Another set of Lacy’s tunes explored what Monk tunes might sound like if he’d dabbled more with lyrics, including “As Usual,” which Scheinman delivered with deadpan irreverence, and the seemingly nonsensical The Gleam.

The sextet’s last piece, Monk’s relaxed and bluesy Crepuscule with Nellie, left me wishing for more. Specifically, it left me wishing for more Monk. Though admittedly the night was certainly more geared toward celebrating Monk’s influence on others, rather than just his music, two Monk tunes in two sets seemed like too little.

The PDX Jazz Festival’s willingness to let local musicians play such a big role, and take such big risks playing music that most audiences aren’t familiar with, is exactly what the music scene in Portland needs right now. This is true in some ways for bands like Kneebody as well. They might be well established, but they don’t play one of the traditional forms of jazz that most audiences may be comfortable with.

The important distinction between these two ensembles is one of time. Kneebody’s sixteen years as a band helped them forge a new sound that takes jazz in new directions. Misteriosos, although brief in their life as an ensemble, used their time to give the community of Portland listeners a fresh glimpse into the music of Steve Lacy. How many of those in the audience that night would have found out about him otherwise?

Portland needs this type of programming. Jazz in all its shapes and sizes needs a platform for expression. The PDX Jazz Festival has done a great job of providing this platform to local and national artists alike. This spring’s lineup includes local pianist and saxophonist Kerry Politzer and Idit Shner April 6th at the Ace Hotel, local jazz pianist Darrell Grant at Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium on April 30th, and national jazz heavyweights Dave Holland Trio April 7th at Revolution Hall, Gerald Clayton Trio at The Old Church on May 3rd, and Anat Cohen Trio Brasileiro on May 4th at The Old Church. June is packed with outstanding artists as well, the Joe Lovano Classic Quartet performing two shows at the Fremont Theater on June 8th, Donny McCaslin Group (David Bowie’s band on his album Blackstar) is coming on June 16th to the Mission Theater, and Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet led by trumpeter Akinmusire will perform at the Mission Theater on June 17th.

Patrick McCulley is an Oregon born saxophonist, educator, and composer with an M.M. in saxophone performance. He is the saxophone instructor and director for the Portland Music Collective. His non-musical interests include tea, cats, rain, science fiction and international travel.

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