I endured a 2.5-hour drive up to Pasadena on Tuesday night to see one of my favorite bands, Kneebody, give a clinic at LA Music Academy. I arrived early and grabbed a seat front and center. It blew my mind.
The first thing I noticed was all the guitar pedals. Everyone but the drummer had a few. Bass had some overdrive and a Line 6 Delay. Trumpet had a Moogerfooger and a few others. Sax had a Line 6 Delay and a few others. Keys had a Line 6 Delay and a ton of others. But the first chill up my spine was sent from the sax and trumpet playing together during sound check. The two of them have a truly magical sound when combined.
Simply hearing them play live put a big grin on my face. Everyone knows that feeling. That alone made the drive worth it, but wasn't even the best part. I've read about a system of musical cues they developed for arranging tunes on the fly. I mentioned it in my history of jazz seminar at SDSU in a presentation on Kneebody. Sounds fascinating, but they went into great detail in the clinic. They have little melodies that any member of the band can play at any time during any song, live or studio, to signal certain changes in the orchestration, key, tempo, meter, and other elements.
They first demonstrated their tempo change cue. It involves a specific melody to warn of the change, then a countoff in the new tempo (as a polyrhythm over the current tempo), then the whole band changes to the new tempo while maintaining all other aspects of the feel (chords, riffs, etc.).
They have cues to direct certain members of the band. For example, a toggle cue (two sixteenth notes and an eighth note, repeated) followed by a single quarter note tells the drummer to drop out, or to resume playing if he's currently not. Followed by two quarter notes, the cue is directed at the bassist; three, keys; four, sax; five, trumpet. So anyone in the band can tell anyone else to drop out or come back in to change the feel of any groove at any time. They use the same naming method for looping; anyone can assign short loops to any other instrument.
They demonstrated a key change cue via a recognizable melody followed by the interval by which they want to modulate. They recently added a meter change cue, which involves another recognizable melody followed by an interval, but the interval represents the new meter. A major or minor third indicates 3/4 time. A fourth indicates 4/4 time, a fifth 5/4, etc.
Have some examples! Take a listen to Looking Back, a track from their second album, Low Electrical Worker. During Shane Endsley's solo on trumpet, he calls a handful of cues. At 1:40, he tells bass to drop out. At 1:46, he tells keys to come in. From 1:51 to 2:00, he gives keys a loop to repeat. From 2:23 to 2:37, he gives sax a loop to repeat. At 2:55, he tells bass to come back in. Those are all the cues I caught from that track. I'm starting to identify more. I've recognized the little repeated motives throughout their music before, but now I know what they all mean.
Kneebody has been at this for nine years, and they employ around 30 different cues, occasionally adding new ones to the arsenal. I hope these communication techniques proliferate through the music community; I see huge potential for innovation and performance excitement.