Whirled Party The spontaneous soundscapes of Medeski, Martin & Wood | AspenTimes.com
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Whirled Party The spontaneous soundscapes of Medeski, Martin & Wood

Stewart Oksenhorn

In concert, it’s a given that Medeski, Martin & Wood is going to improvise. The keyboard trio lives at the three-way intersection of the jazz, groove and jam worlds – all of which favor the spontaneous over the certain. The trio – keyboardist John Medeski, drummer Billy Martin and bassist Chris Wood – respond to everything from the makeup of the audience, the acoustics and size of the venue, and the mood of the day in creating each night’s particular vibe and sound. With the group’s array of instruments – acoustic and electric, organic and synthesized – and their vast musical sensibilities, it is a wide palette from which to choose each night.But MMW has taken the concept of improvisation steps further than their night-to-night jamming. Each of their albums – nine of them, going back to the independently released debut “Notes From the Underground” to the upcoming “End of the World Party (just in case)” – is an unanticipated surprise, almost as likely to be all-acoustic music as a production-heavy digital collage. Even their career is largely sui generis: they haven’t followed the path of a jazz combo, a groove organ trio or a jam band.”End of the World Party,” due to be released on the jazz-oriented Blue Note label Sept. 7, is yet another step into the unknown. For the first time, MMW has engaged a producer to oversee the creation of an album top to bottom. And in this, the trio has gone whole hog, essentially handing their music over to producer John King and allowing him to sculpt the album to his own tastes. Over a period of several months in their studio – dubbed Shacklyn, a converted waterfront loft in Brooklyn – Medeski, Martin and Wood sat down at their instruments and recorded impromptu jams. The three then scoured the tapes for the most promising ideas, and expanded them into developed compositions. The raw material was handed to King – famed as part of the Dust Brothers, producers of such innovative masterpieces as Beck’s “Odelay,” and for his individual production on the Beastie Boys’ “Paul’s Boutique” – who dissected, looped, sampled and rearranged the music. The result is unmistakably MMW – a balance of grooving and hard-edged – but is also more textured and atmospheric than any past MMW album.”It’s different. Which is starting to be the same,” said Medeski, a balding, unassuming, 36-year-old powerhouse of a musician whose instrumental domain includes virtually anything with keys. “As a band, our character is to grow and expand. Each CD goes to a different world, a different version of what we do.”Medeski added that it is not a conscious effort to continue treading new ground with each album. Rather, it is in the genetic make-up of the trio, which formed, appropriately, out of an impromptu jam session in 1991 in Martin’s Brooklyn apartment.”It’s by nature, not design,” he said. “Every time we try to make a record, we’re aware of what we’ve done. But it’s not an intellectual decision.”

“End of the World Party” had even more of the sense of improvisation than their past albums. On their previous CD, 2002’s “Uninvisible,” MMW worked with their usual engineer and co-producer Scotty Hard. After listening to the finished album, they recognized how much of a hand Hard had in the sound of “Uninvisible,” which included contributions from DJs, horn players, vocalists and more.”It hit us that he really produced it. It wasn’t so much a collective creation as the last record,” 2000’s “The Dropper,” said Medeski, who is in the midst of producing an album for sacred steel gospel group the Campbell Brothers, and produced the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s 1999 album “Buck Jump.” “That opened us up to the idea of using a producer, and trusting someone else. We still had a budget with Blue Note, and for the sake of experiment, we figured we’d find a producer.”Which was easier said than done. No traditionalists, MMW have long been fans of cutting-edge techniques, having used turntablists, feedback and more into their own recordings. So the list of studio knob-twisters they admired was long.”There were so many producers,” said Medeski. The band’s first call was to Nigel Goodrich, who had worked with Radiohead and Beck. “He had never heard of us,” said Medeski. “We thought, who the hell are we going to get? We were ready to record.”Their last option before settling on the fallback position of producing themselves, was King. “He had made a lot of records we loved, like ‘Odelay,'” said Medeski. “He’s coming from a different world, more pop-oriented, but the same way of making a record. He seemed like the right one, and the timing was right.”With King aboard, MMW altered their way of recording. Past albums had been relatively straightforward, with the trio playing together to record their basic tracks. For “End of the World Party,” drummer Martin and bassist Wood laid down their rhythm tracks together first, and the sound was built on top of that. “It’s a little more structured and contrived,” said Medeski. “Whereas before, we always started off with all of us just playing.”

Medeski, Martin & Wood began by just playing. The three were all players in New York’s downtown scene, the frontier of avant-garde jazz. From the moment the trio assembled to jam, they recognized the potential of the music. “The first note, the first minute, the chemistry was obvious,” said Martin. “We didn’t talk, we just played. We talked with notes, not words.”The original format was a piano trio, with Medeski on acoustic piano and Wood on acoustic bass. But as the trio worked its way into the clubs, first in the New York area, and then around the Northeast, Medeski found that the pianos provided were routinely lousy. He began working organs and electric keyboards into the mix. Wood added electric bass guitar to his arsenal. Meanwhile Martin – who had once given up playing the usual “trap” drum kit for two years to focus on a variety of percussion instruments – played bells, the African mbira, gongs, talking drums and more. The sound expanded and morphed into something exotic and different. It wasn’t an organ trio in the mold of Jimmy Smith; it certainly wasn’t a piano trio. It wasn’t jazz or groove in the traditional sense of those styles.”We didn’t set out to be anything except play music together,” said Medeski. “We didn’t decide to be an organ trio. For me, that’s never been a very insightful reference for where we’re coming from. It’s more like a piano trio, except now I’m using a lot of different sounds.”The sound on the group’s first album, “Note From the Underground,” made shortly after the initial jam, were all acoustic. But even in that framework, there was the essence of experimentation. On 1993’s “It’s a Jungle In Here,” Medeski had worked organ and Wurlitzer into the sound, and MMW brought in a downtown horn section and guitarist.By the time of 1996’s “Shack-man,” recorded in a remote shack on Hawaii’s Big Island, the trio had settled into something that might be called avant-groove. That album’s steady funk remains the closest thing the group has to a signature sound; it is their best-selling record. (The group would find an even steadier groove on 1998’s “A Go Go,” guitarist John Scofield’s album which had MMW as the backing band.)”Shack-Man” gave MMW a big leap in popularity. (Also giving a hand in boosting MMW was the jam band Phish, who played MMW music during the set-breaks in its show.) The trio found itself playing massive festivals and amphitheaters. Still, on record, they refused to turn the groove into a rut. The 1999 live album “Tonic,” recorded in the tiny New York club of the same name, showed MMW pushing the limits of the acoustic piano trio once again, with beguiling versions of Lee Morgan’s “Afrique” and “Hey Joe,” made famous by Jimi Hendrix. That sharp turn invited another: “The Dropper,” from 2000, was aggressive and industrial, a turn toward metal jazz.

With such a wide landscape to choose from, it’s difficult to know which face MMW will present for a particular date. The most significant factor is the venue. The trio recently did a run of small theaters that allowed them to explore their more intimate, piano-oriented side. Much of this summer, in contrast, will be spent in amphitheaters like Red Rocks, with a presumably amped-up MMW sharing a bill with hop-hop outfit the Roots and hard-rock band 311.Medeski began playing piano as a kid in Fort Lauderdale, sitting on the lap of his father, a stride-style player. He started classical lessons at 5, got into jazz in his early teens, and went to Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music. Medeski met Wood in the late ’80s, when the two played together at a Boston gig; the pair solidified their musical relationship during a tour of Israel and decided to move to New York together. There they found the downtown avant-garde scene, the ideal crucible in which to stir their ideas. Outside of MMW, Medeski has been part of The Word, an experimental gospel band with pedal steel player Robert Randolph and the North Mississippi Allstars, and has guested on albums by Dar Williams, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, John Zorn and more.For Medeski, the trip from classical piano to sampled electronic loops has been more than just an investigation of sound and structure. It has been about finding and defining himself.”It was just about becoming honest about who I am in every way, instead of trying to play ‘jazz’ or to do what I thought was cool to do,” said Medeski, who has lived in upstate New York, near Woodstock, for the past two years. “It was in my early 20s when I put together all the stuff I studied and learned, along with coming to terms with who I am.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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