Since a diverse group of teenage CalArts and Eastman School of Music students coalesced as Kneebody in Los Angeles in 2001, the instrumental ensemble has built the kind of growing young audience most jazzers would envy. The way it incorporates rock and pop influences into its singular, organic sound certainly helps with that.
WW spoke to saxophonist Ben Wendel about the challenges of expanding outside the jazz box, playing rock clubs and how he'd define Kneebody's undefinable sound.
WW: Your new fourth album is on what's been traditionally a jazz label, Concord. Yet in Portland, you play indie-rock venues. Why?
Ben Wendel: The inspiration for Kneebody's sound came from the fact that we actually started in a rock venue in L.A., the Temple Bar. We all feel more comfortable in indie-rock clubs. There's a certain sound to amplified music—driving the tube amp or guitar amp to get a certain sound, fuzz or distortion on the bass and all kinds of effects pedals on the horns—and to hear those clearly in a democratic way across the band, you need a large sound system to experience that. The music is very rhythmic and groove-based, and playing in rooms on the drier side allows us to write music like that.
Over the last decade or so, jazz has been reinventing itself thanks to younger musicians who are bringing influences from rock, jam bands, hip-hop and so on. Do you feel Kneebody is part of that trend?
I think we're part of that lineage, which really goes back as far as Weather Report—groove-based music improvisation, lots of different influences. Back then, they called it "fusion music." I like to call it "hybrid."
But when you make music that doesn't fit a pigeonhole like "jazz" or "jam" or whatever, doesn't that make it hard to find an audience?
Kneebody is such a specific thing that we have this wide base of followers. We don't have a specific demographic. I see all kinds of different folks in different venues. Given that it's an instrumental group and improv is involved, the music is often put under the jazz umbrella, though I don't know that it's ever lived there very comfortably.
It's very difficult to describe what the sound is without using six descriptors in a row. Our greatest challenge is to make a sound that's easier to promote and describe. The other side of that, though, is it can box you in. Music doesn't fit into categories. We've always done best when people just show up and tell other people about the band.
And yet, as music critics, we have to come up with a brief phrase that describes your indescribable music. Care to give it a shot?
Oh gosh. Uh, let's just call it "virtuosic electro-jazz."
SEE IT: Kneebody plays Mississippi Studios, 3939 N Mississippi Ave., with the Wishermen, featuring Barra Brown, on Wednesday, April 9. 8 pm. $17 advance, $20 day of show. 21+.