The club is packed shoulder to shoulder, and the crowd buzzes with anticipation. Five musicians take the stage, assuming their positions behind their instruments, a standard jazz configuration of trumpet, tenor sax, keys, bass, and drums. But this is no jazz club. A DJ is spinning remixed soul music, downtown hipsters mingle with college students and a few grizzled older drinkers, and there isn’t a framed photo of Miles Davis in sight.
And when the band hits, they HIT with the ferocity of a punk band. The low growl of Shane Endsley’s trumpet blends seamlessly with Ben Wendel’s sax as they uncork swirling, knotty melodies; Nate Wood’s drumset cannot contain his exuberance as he bangs away at cymbals arrayed on the floor around him; bassist Kaveh Rastegar rocks steadily in the center, an anchor in this sonic storm; and Adam Benjamin, wearing a wide-brimmed hat that covers his eyes, twirls knobs on the effects pedals on top of his Rhodes keyboard, conjuring sounds never before heard from that instrument.
Few in the audience try to dance, but no one can resist moving. As the band layers groove upon polyrhythmic groove, heads bob and hips swivel. Ben is in the middle of an extended sax solo, his instrument distorted so as to sound exactly like an electric guitar, when suddenly the groove changes, modulating to precisely one third of the previous tempo. The band hits this new pocket instantly, without missing a beat. A cry of amazement goes up from the audience – they aren’t sure what just happened, but it sure felt good.
The band is Kneebody, and their unique musical vocabulary and sonic ingenuity makes them one of the most exciting ensembles working in improvised music today. We spoke to Adam Benjamin about his role in the band, and about the development of their personal language of musical cues.
Vikram: You guys always seem to have big smiles on your faces when you’re playing, like you’re egging each other on. As a musician, that’s really exciting to watch, but it’s also frustrating, because it’s like you’re having a conversation or telling an inside joke that no one else is in on.
Adam: There’s so many inside jokes it’s insane, such as the cueing. Our cues are a pretty large vocabulary of short, transparent musical phrases that we can play to alter things. By transparent, I mean that they are meant to not jump out, not be too obvious. They’re meant to blend into the rest of the music, so that it is not too apparent that we’re giving each other musical instructions. But we can control the direction of the improvisation in many ways, or hopefully at this point in EVERY way.
We have cues to change most major aspects of the music. We have cues for changing meter, changing key, and each member of the band has a musical name. With the names, we can cue each other in and out for orchestrational reasons. There’s another cue that resets the orchestration, so that we don’t have to move people in or out one at a time, but rather, we can move to a particular duo or trio, or whatever. We can tell each other to play certain figures using the musical names, like we can tell each other to loop certain parts. We can tell each other to solo, or we can tell each other to stop soloing. We can tell each other to change the texture of what we’re playing, to take a solo break.
Anyone can play a cue at anytime. The only restriction is that Nate can’t do the cues that are pitch dependent, but he can do the names, because in addition to being different pitches, they’re also each a different amount of pitches. So he does the name stuff a lot, where he’ll cue me in or out. Usually out.
Vikram: Does that ever turn into an argument on the bandstand? What happens if you’re getting a direction you don’t want to follow?
Adam: In a normal musical situation, if you’re just talking, and someone is like “Hey man, do you want to solo on this one?” and you’re not feeling very comfortable, you would say, “no, no, I’m cool man, it’s good.” But one of the cool things about the cueing is that if we’re on the bandstand playing some hard song, and I’m half lost, and someone plays the “Adam Solos” cue, I’m just like, “Fuck.” Because you can’t argue with the cue. I mean, what I could do is cue myself back out, or cue someone else to solo right away. But you try to trust the other person’s instincts. If I get cued to solo and I’m really uncomfortable or lost, then maybe I’d cue something different behind me to solo over, or I’d cue someone to solo with me or trade with me, but I wouldn’t just be like, “eh, shut up.”
Vikram: I suppose there’s a little bit of pride too – even if you are lost and you get cued to solo, you don’t want to just surrender.
Adam: It’s less of a pride thing and more of a respect thing. If someone cues something in the band, and you miss it or disobey it, that’s not a good place to be. That means that either you weren’t listening, or you don’t give a shit what they think.
Matt: It can turn into an intense conversation during the performance, but what keeps it form becoming a gimmick or trick, or just a game? What keeps it on the level of art?
Adam: Just our taste, hopefully. When we’re first getting a new cue together is when we tend to overuse it, because we’re still learning it in rehearsals, so when we go to perform we fall into a space where we’re doing it a lot because that’s all we’re hearing.
The Slip – From Kneebody Live Vol. 1
We never really intended to develop this whole system of cues, it just sort of happened. The first cue: Shane wrote a song called “The Slip,” that’s just an A section and a B section, and there’s a cue to stop the A section and go on to the B section, and a cue to stop the B and go back to the A. So we were just doing that, and then we realized that when we started the B section, we could start at different tempos. Or we could play the cue to start the B section while we were in the middle of another song. So that was an easy thing to fall into, and it grew from there. The second cue was when Ben soloed for like twenty minutes at some gig, and it was going nowhere, and we were all really annoyed, and we were just like, “we need a cue to stop this.”
The whole point of the cues is that they’re there only when necessary to steer things, but if we could get away with not using them…
When I was at Banff this past year giving a talk about the Kneebody cues, Joshua Redman was in the audience, and he asked something like “if you could have the Kneebody system where you can communicate all this stuff to each other and change things on a dime, or you could have the Wayne Shorter Quartet system, where it’s harder to change things on a dime but you have this really amazing intuitive sense of moving from space to space together improvisationally, which would you rather have?” And of course, I was like, “Wayne Shorter is a god.” Those guys are way beyond where we’re at. But in the long run, it’s hopefully for the same purpose – we’re just trying to nudge each other along or turn the music around when it gets stuck.
Matt: I have some questions about the way the music is put together: It’s never done with sheet music, right? It’s all done by ear, so when you write something for the band, what happens next? How do you go about learning new music?
Adam: Sometimes we’ll have notes we make while we’re composing, but there’s never charts that are handed out or anything. We try to always have everyone learn everyone’s parts, though lately we haven’t been able to do that as much as we were doing at first, due to time concerns. Generally, we just teach it section by section. At times, it feels like Kneebody is less of a band, and more of a class, where the thing we’re getting really good at is learning this complicated music by ear. And specifically, learning each other’s really complicated music by ear, where we understand each other’s compositional voices enough that we can adapt and learn new material more quickly than we would in other situations.
Matt: It seems like that music must take a lot of rehearsal, yet seemingly you can’t rehearse that much, since half the band lives in New York, and the other half lives out here in LA.
Adam: We basically never rehearse. Unfortunately, that means we don’t get as much new material happening, which is sort of a drag. Though we don’t rehearse that much, but what we do have is a pretty good amount of years of performance experience together. We have the ability – even if we are under rehearsed, even if we can’t hear each other, even if we’re playing in some awkward place on two hours sleep – to play a concert that leaves us feeling okay about it.
Matt: Let’s talk about the beginnings of Kneebody. You were in school with Shane and Ben at Eastman, right?
Adam: Right. We were in school together, we all started the same year, and we all lived in the dorms together. Ben was like the kid from California, and I was like, “who is this kid with the coiffed hair?” He was a classical conducting and bassoon major who switched to jazz. Then I met Nate after I switched to CalArts. He was a sophomore when I was a senior. And I met Kaveh right after that, he had started at Eastman right after I left, and he was friends with Shane.
I stayed in LA after graduating CalArts in 1999. Nate was still here, and then Shane, Ben, and Kaveh all moved out. And I introduced everyone, I’m proud to say – I organized the first session where they all met Nate. We had a weekly gig at a coffee shop at UCLA, before we were a band or anything, it was just a weekly thing we had. And it was really bad for a long time. We had this regular gig, and it was just really bad music and a super awkward pairing of people, uncomfortable on many levels.
Vikram: Looking back, what was it about the group that kept you guys together, even though it was so bad?
Adam: I don’t know, I think it was just that we all liked each other. I wanted to keep working with those guys, and so it wasn’t a stumbling block that it was so bad. And we all knew it was bad. We just felt like we wanted to work together, because we had known each other a while and had lots of mutual respect, and also we felt like we were meant to work together for some reason. I think that’s still what propels us through times when the band is not as rewarding as at other times, or when we feel like we’re just sucking it up.
But it was definitely a weird match at first. Nate was more of a stickler at that point in time, musically. He was generally pretty critical of when we would go into too much improvisation. He likes his music short and sweet, concise.
Matt: What were you guys playing? Had you started a Kneebody book at that point?
Adam: We were playing some jazz stuff, but it was mostly random original tunes we had written, and various, just, jams, because it was kind of a loose gig. We hadn’t really gotten into writing the denser, through-composed music yet – that was like a year later, when we got a weekly gig at the Temple Bar. Shane had gone on tour for a long time, and so it was just the four of us, and we called the band “Wendel.” There was pretty much no improvisation; it was just loud, through-composed rock music. And then when Shane got back to town, he kind of rejoined the band, and then it evolved into Kneebody.
Matt: We talked before about how you relate to the jazz tradition. How connected to jazz is the band Kneebody, aside from your own personal connection?
Adam: I consider Kneebody a jazz group, because I see what we’re doing as coming out of the way jazz groups evolved many years ago. But there are definitely other things in there. I don’t really conceive of it as a bunch disparate parts – it’s just us playing the way we play, and we kind of embody all of these different influences and sounds.
Matt: When it was just the four of you, and you were starting to gel as a group, who brought what to the band? Because when I hear Kneebody today, I hear your compositional stamp, and definitely Shane’s, and Ben’s…
Adam: And Kaveh’s too. His songs maybe aren’t as many in quantity, but in an average set things are spread out pretty evenly among us, compositionally. For some reason, Nate just refuses to write music for Kneebody. We’ve given up trying to make him. But he propels the music in other ways, bringing so much performance-wise, and also in the way he engineers the records. And in the way he eats. He’s a very passionate eater. It’s kind of disturbing actually. He’s very committed to his eating. When he eats something he likes, you’re gonna know about it.
Vikram: And when you think about the group now, what do you think each member brings to the table?
Adam: We always talk in clinics about our influences. There was one interview we did years ago, where Ben got stuck putting a quick little label on everybody. I don’t remember most of them, but Shane’s really stuck out – just two words, “Funk Mentors.” So I’ll go with that for Shane. Ben is “Classical music.” Nate is “pretty flashy.” I mean, he’s good, you know? He’s really good at the drums. Kaveh is the “Rock and Roll.” And I’m just “chords,” I guess. Actually, I feel like I’m a little bit the contrarian, where I’m always trying to pull things back, or be more reflective in the music, whereas the other guys generally tend to push things into a more energetic space.
But anybody can bring anything, which is what’s cool about that band. We all go off and play different tours with other musicians, and then that lets us bring new things to the band because it broadens our horizons and skill sets. It’s very difficult to predict what people are going to bring musically, and everybody in the band is multifaceted enough to bring something different all the time and keep surprising each other. I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to keep it going for a long time.
Tune in next week for the last segment of our conversation with Adam Benjamin, where we discuss his participation in Dave Douglas’s Keystone band, his keyboard gear, and his plans for world domination.
To go back to Part I of our interview with Adam, click HERE.