Listen up: It’s Medeski, Martin & Wood in Aspen
ASPEN – Remember that performance by Medeski, Martin & Wood at the 2004 Jazz Aspen June Festival?No, you don’t. The gig was as an opening act, and virtually the entire crowd waited for the headliner, bluesman Buddy Guy, to take the stage before heading to their seats. It left a tent essentially empty of listeners to greet Medeski, Martin & Wood.Not that the trio seemed to notice, or mind. MMW may take a rocker’s approach to the keyboard trio – their sounds and grooves can be reminiscent of industrial rock; they don’t shy away from volume. But the way the trio – keyboardist John Medeski, drummer Billy Martin and bassist Chris Wood – create music is akin to a conversation, and their focus is on each other, rather than who is listening, or not.”It’s ultimately not that important to us,” Wood, who co-founded the combo in 1991, following a memorable jam in a Brooklyn loft, said of the Jazz Aspen experience. “It’s a big tent, and you get the feeling people are there because it’s a festival, not because we’re there. They were there for a big name, Buddy Guy.”We’ve got plenty to pay attention to closer to the stage. We have to pay attention to each other. It’s not set – how long a solo will be, how long a melody will be, when certain events will happen.”Which is not to say that the setting for an MMW show doesn’t matter. When the trio appears in Aspen on Thursday, the venue should have a noticeable impact on the performance. The show is at Belly Up, marking the group’s first club gig in the valley. (In addition to the June Festival gig, MMW has played two open-air concerts in the area – at Jazz Aspen’s Labor Day Festival, and at the Snowmass Chili Pepper & Brewfest.) The club is likely to be full, the crowd is likely to be on the lively side – certainly rowdier than at Beaver Creek’s Vilar Center, the seated theater where MMW was scheduled to play Wednesday night – and the trio’s sound will vibrate off the walls in a way that is impossible in an outdoor venue. And the final element should be the musicians’ enthusiasm.”It’s hard to beat a little club – for sound, for intimacy with each other, and between us and the audience,” Wood said from his home in the Catskills region of New York state, where he has lived for a decade. “Clubs are great places, depending on the audience. For us, it will probably be the best place setting we’ve had in Aspen. It will sound better; you’ll feel the music more. And so will we.”Over 20 years, MMW has developed a rare versatility. They’ve played their instrumental music in small jazz clubs and bigger rock halls, theaters and major festivals. Some fans come to dance to the grooves; others are looking for a close listening experience. The threesome has learned enough about what works in different venues that, as they walk into a gig, little needs to be said about how to approach that night’s performance.”Most of that is pretty obvious, unspoken stuff,” said Wood, who has played Belly Up with his folk-blues duo, the Wood Brothers, which includes his brother, singer-guitarist Oliver. “We might not do certain tunes if it’s going to be noisy, partying time. Or if it’s a pristine place and a listening crowd, there are tunes we will gravitate to. At this point, we know how to play the room.” Listing the pros of playing a small club, Wood said, “the intimacy. The sound is often good. We can hear each other. But the cons are the partying can be so much, we can seem like background music.”On the current tour, which takes place mostly in theaters, the shows have a semi-defined structure. The first set comprises older material, dictated by online fan voting. (“Bubblehouse,” a funky, organ-driven tune from a 1997 EP of the same name, was selected for all of the Colorado dates.) Set two is what MMW calls a “Shack Party.””We have this term we coined, shacking out,” Wood said. “We spent a certain part of the ’90s going to Hawaii, living in a shack and just improvising together. A certain type of improvising – groove-oriented, danceable stuff. Around that period we did a series of gigs at the Knitting Factory – Shack Parties, improvised sets with guests. It was a chance for us to stretch out.”MMW has been as versatile on their recordings as they are in concert. Their catalogue includes an all-acoustic, live recording (“Tonic,” from 2000); an album featuring various DJs, vocalists and horn players (“Uninvisible,” from 2002); and a children’s album (“Let’s Go Everywhere,” from 2008). They have collaborated on two prominent albums with guitarist John Scofield. The 2008 album “Zaebos: Book of Angels Vol. 11” featured all compositions by John Zorn.The most recent recording project was meant to turn upside-down the usual process of write-record-tour. The three-album “Radiolarians” had MMW composing music in quick bursts, immediately bringing it to the stage to develop the work, and then heading into the studio to record it.”It’s a big experiment. Like everything we do,” said Wood (who also has a new Wood Brothers album, “Smoke Ring Halo,” due out in the spring). “It was great, because it forced us to be prolific, write a lot in a short amount of time, which is exactly what we wanted. Three records in a year – I don’t know if that was the smartest commercial move, but we’ve never been about that.”MMW’s next recording project is yet another curve ball. To commemorate their 20th anniversary, they will release 20 downloadable tracks of new material, at the rate of two tunes a month, beginning this month.The way MMW had built itself, it hasn’t been always easy to satisfy all the fans. Wood said there can be tension at shows between the listeners and the dancers: “Some fans want to sit and listen and follow our journey. Some are going to dance, no matter the setting. Sometimes those worlds clash. All we can do is play and react to what is going on.”Impressively, no such conflicts appear to exist within the band. MMW has never taken a hiatus; there is no apparent tension between members over which direction they should head. They seem united in their quest to push the music forward.”We’re all very different,” Wood said. “But in this odd way, we fit together well. People spend years trying to find the right bandmates, and we had it fall into our laps at the start.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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