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Billy Martin’s Wicked Knee: Heels Over Head

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Here, drummer Billy Martin, of the inimitable Medeski Martin & Wood, leads his compact avant-brass group through its second release. Its name derived from Shake Your Wicked Knees (a compilation of piano rags, blues and stomps of the ’20s and ’30s), the quartet includes fellow Lounge Lizard Steven Bernstein on trumpets, tuba player Marcus Rojas and trombonist Curtis Fowlkes. Together they explore the New Orleans brass-band tradition through the prism of Downtown NYC jazz.

This unorthodox configuration offers space for engaging, often-whimsical interplay and inspired improvisation. Frank London’s syncopated “Ghumba Zumba” opens, underscoring the group’s second-line approach, its melody serving as a springboard for exploration. (A similar strategy is used on Bernstein’s infectious “Sugarfoot Stomp.”) The leader’s dirge-like “Chaman’s Interlude” features didgeridoo-esque blowing, bells and drum flourishes; his bluesy “99%” showcases guest vocalist Shelley Hirsch musing on hard times; and his drumless “Rendezvous” highlights brilliant brass hues. Covers include a stretched-out version of the White Stripes’ “The Hardest Button to Button,” deftly arranged by Bernstein, and a bouncy rendition of the traditional ranchera “Canta y No Llores.” The otherworldly atmosphere on the collectively composed “Noctiluca” is created through Martin’s scraped cymbals, bowed waterphone and assorted percussive devices. Combined with Rojas’ droning and Bernstein’s echo and delay, the cut brings this set to an eerie yet satisfying close.

Originally Published