Billy Martin's Wicked Knee | SPACE | Jazz | Chicago Reader
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Billy Martin's Wicked Knee 

When: Tue., Aug. 5, 7:30 p.m. 2014
Price: $15-$27
Drummer Billy Martin has a reputation for keeping bodies moving no matter how out-there the music around him gets. As the engine behind Medeski Martin & Wood he keeps the jammiest passages buoyant, but he’s at his best when he doesn’t have to do all the heavy lifting himself—like when MM&W plays actual tunes. As such he’s also at his best in the mini brass band Wicked Knee, where he’s got help from trumpeter Steven Bernstein, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, and tuba player Marcos Rojas. On its scrappy 2013 debut album, Heels Over Head (Amulet), this nimble quartet often comes off as a post-New Orleans funk combo—albeit one elastic enough to tackle moody postbop (Bernstein’s atmospheric charger “Theme One”), coloristic free improv (the richly abstract “Noctiluca”), and a bottom-heavy blitz through a White Stripes song (“Button to Button”). With its mix of melodic generosity, rhythmic heft, and free blowing, the group is more like Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy or Ray Anderson’s Pocket Brass than the Rebirth Brass Band, and despite its compact size, it puts out a big, boisterous sound. But Wicked Knee sometimes sounds best when it dials back: the drummerless meditation “Rendezvous” bleeds into a searing, funny stream-of-consciousness rant by guest vocalist Shelley Hirsch on “99%,” a skittering, earthy blues that’s all about going without. A wry sensibility electrifies the band’s take on the mariachi standard “Cielito Lindo” (here titled by its refrain, “Canta y No Llores”), and Bernstein’s arrangement of the King Oliver classic “Sugarfoot Stomp” gives it a visceral second-line groove. This quartet moves from idea to idea with nimble ease, and never loses its focus or its sense of fun. Tonight trombonist Brian Drye subs for Fowlkes. —Peter Margasak
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