ben wendel

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.

Continues…