Thursday, November 19, 2009

Medeski, Martin & Wood Flaunt Their Independence

Posted By on 11.19.09 at 03:34 PM

Medeski, Martin & Wood
  • Medeski, Martin & Wood
I’ve always made time to check out new music from jazzy organ trio-turned-jam band Medeski, Martin & Wood, but it’s been about a decade since the prospect has excited me. Back in the mid-90s the group pushed against all sorts of organ-trio conventions—they employed a bassist, Chris Wood, instead of the requisite guitarist; keyboardist John Medeski looked to organ rebel Larry Young for inspiration; and the band developed a light-footed repertoire that squeegeed away much of the customary Hammond B-3 grease. Led by their sense of daring, MMW pushed further into the realm of improvisation, where around the turn of the decade they made (to my ears anyway) a wrong turn.

Discovered by the patchouli-scented herds, MMW began focusing on rhythmic jamming, creating funky, full-blooded music that seemed to exist for listeners to get lost in. Even though they only rarely dip into reggae, the methodology of dub looms large in nearly all of their work: big rhythms support freely ranging experiments in texture, shape, and groove. Unfortunately, if you wanted subtle development, harmonic experimentation, or melodic elaboration, you were shit out of luck; you either caught a contact high or got trampled by dancing hippies.

MMW aren’t too concerned about what I think, and as a model for a jazz band that can be popular, they certainly don’t need to—they routinely play venues as big as the Vic, where they can pack in more than a thousand people to hear largely improvised instrumental music. That’s nothing to sneeze at. They know what kind of freedom this gives them, too: after they fulfilled their contractual obligations to Blue Note five years ago, they took matters into their own hands, starting their own Indirecto imprint. And as they’ve proved with a spate of new recordings over the past year or so—culminating in the massive Radiolarians: The Evolutionary Set box, due out December 8—they’ve used this independence to play by their own rules.

The trio released Radiolarians 1 in September 2008 as part of an effort to break the typical music-biz cycle of write, record, and then tour. Instead they wrote, toured, and then recorded, while the music was still hot from weeks of steady gigging. They did the same thing two more times, with Radiolarians II and Radiolarians III. The box set collects those three volumes, adds a disc of music from a live show, a disc of remixes, another disc with three studio bonus tracks, a DVD containing a documentary made by drummer Billy Martin called Fly in a Bottle, and a double LP containing highlights from the three Radiolarians albums. Whew!

That’s an awful lot of music to absorb, and with its $89.99 list price this set is clearly not intended for casual listeners. But that’s sort of the rub with MMW—for a while now it’s been hard to listen to them in anything more than a casual way, even if you want to. These guys are phenomenal musicians, and they improvise at a very high level, but at a certain point their playing starts to sound a little glib and a lot predictable. These days the written-out portions of their tunes tend to be terse melodic-rhythmic nuggets—sometimes they’ll even build in a real chorus—and they rarely provide more than a skeletal framework to improvise within (“Jean’s Scene” from Radiolarians III, for instance, is basically a standard son montuno phrase modulated once). After a while you can sense where everything is headed, and the fact that the music goes exactly where you think it’s going with style and substance doesn’t help all that much.

I prefer Zaebos (Tzadik), MMW’s recent entry in John Zorn’s Book of Angels series, in which other artists tackle Masada compositions. Here their sublimely fluid sensibilities seem sharpened and distilled: they constantly tweak rhythm, intensity, and dynamics, but the tunes force them to stick more tightly to preexisting melodic forms and harmonic material. This makes the performances not just richer but also a nice change of pace from the band’s usual MO.

Medeski, Martin & Wood perform Saturday night at the House of Blues.

photo: Liz Penta

Today’s playlist:

Cramps, Bad Music for Bad People (I.R.S.)
Barrett Strong, The Complete Motown Collection (Spectrum Music)
João Lencastre’s Communion, B-Sides (Fresh Sound New Talent)
James Carter, John Medeski, Christian McBride, Adam Rogers, and Joey Baron, Heaven on Earth (Half Note)
Gary Higgins, Seconds (Drag City)

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