The End / Kneebody (US), The Forum Upstairs on Sunday 2 June 2013 at 7pm, Melbourne International Jazz Festival
The crowd was noticeably younger at The Forum Upstairs for this gig, and expectations were high for the genre-bending five-piece US band Kneebody, billed as combining “the depth of jazz, the swagger of hip-hop and the conviction of rock” in a “no holds barred brand of musical expression”. Well, we all know the writers of festival blurbs can get a little carried away, but the second set was likely to be exciting.
But before that we had a concert beginning with The End, playing compositions by guitarist band leader Tim Willis and with Kneebody’s Shane Endsley as a guest on trumpet. One tiny gripe I have was that MIJF artistic director Michael Tortoni — who must be fairly busy — did not introduce The End until the beginning of the second set (that’s the end of those beginning and end references BTW). It seems reasonable for any band worthy of playing at this major festival to be introduced before they play, but I’m probably old fashioned.
The End opened as if The Forum Upstairs was on fire and only the vigour of its musical output could extinguish the flames. But as the set evolved it was clear that the compositions were taking us to more interesting places than loud rock-infused vibes. After the Eugene Ball and Mark Helias compositions played at this venue earlier in the day, I was looking for variation, development and unpredictability to maintain interest as well as inspire admiration in the musicianship. Willis’s quintet plus Endsley delivered that — I found that I enjoyed each piece more as the set progressed.
Endsley’s playing certainly added significantly to the line-up, but the standout players on the night for The End were Willis, Nick Martyn on drums and Gareth Hill on bass.
Kneebody has been together for 12 years and it shows. The band’s musicianship was exemplary — in other words, they could play. Their work was tight and virtuosic. Kaveh Rastegar was engaging as spokesman.
Their compositions, many by keyboard player Adam Benjamin, included rhythmic repetition, layered landscapes of sound, psychedelia, intensely percussive periods, attacks with mounting intensity and the lush, sustained feel that the Fender Rhodes can deliver. High Noon had an energetic, pumped up Bill Frisell feel to it. They played with some clapping, fiddled with pedals on sax and trumpet feeds that enabled recording and playback on the run, and they had dry ice “smoke”. This was pretty slick for a jazz gig, and lots of fun as well. The audience loved the set and called on an encore.
There is a tiny “but”. In the end, I felt that this talented quintet played material that did not take us on a journey quite as interesting as did the compositions tackled by The End. What was missing? Well, I suspect Kneebody was delivering exactly the music that their fans expected, but I’d like to have seen more interesting exchanges between instruments — jousting, if you like, or challenges issued and answered. It was almost as if the conversation was as expected, rather than there being a surprise or twist popping up to create electricity.
Kaveh Rastegar thanked Graham Wood, co-owner of the Ellington Jazz Club in Perth and a key figure in the recent inaugural Perth International Jazz Festival, for inviting Kneebody to Australia. We all should thank him as well.