Medeski, Martin and Wood are an innovative, boundary-shattering improvisational trio and one of the best live bands around. The incredible chemistry between John Medeski (keys), Billy Martin (drums/percussion) and Chris Wood (acoustic and electric bass) allows them to spontaneously create beautiful music in a wide range of genres while never falling out of a tight groove. While they have had numerous successful collaborations, most notably with legendary jazz guitarist John Scofield, it is their synergy as a trio, honed after nearly two decades of creating music and touring together, that sets them apart as performers.
John Medeski was a child prodigy in classical and jazz piano, who was once invited to tour with Jaco Pastorius (only fifteen years old, his mother said no). He went to study jazz at the New England Conservatory of Music, where he met Chris Wood. Billy Martin was a protege of innovative jazz drummer and NEC instructor Bob Moses, who was also playing gigs with Chris Wood around Boston. The three got together in the early 90s and became an integral part of the downtown New York avant-garde jazz scene, which also featured such innovators as John Zorn's Masada and John Lurie's Lounge Lizards.
While Medeski generally played a grand piano at those jazz clubs, as well as on their first album, he started playing a Hammond B-3 when they went on tour. Soon, this grew to include a clavinet and an electric piano, which greatly altered the sonic palette of the group. They broke through with Friday Afternoon in the Universe, their third album, as collaborations with Trey Anastasio made them darlings of the jam scene. While they were never very similar to their jam-band counterparts, their popularity among the same fan base had a huge impact on the scene. Phish's funkier period owes a lot to MMW's groove-based playing, while their effective use of DJ Logic, for a time the group's unofficial fourth member, made DJs common collaborators in live jamband performances. Organ-based jazz made something of a comeback around that time as well.
Despite their newfound popularity, MMW never lost their desire to create new things, or their tendency toward the avant-garde, releasing somewhat less accessible albums such as the completely free-improvisation, yet beautiful Farmer's Reserve and the gritty, textured The Dropper.
Rcent years have seen the trio release an album with Scofield (Out Louder, which features a hauntingly beautiful cover of the Beatles' "Julia"), start their own record label (Indirecto Records), and release an exciting series of concept albums, the Radiolarians series. The three have many of their own side projects, including The Word (Medeski's popular gospel collaboration with Robert Randolph and the North Mississippi Allstars), The Wood Brothers, and illyBeats. Given their record, we can expect these fearless innovators to continue to give us great music for years to come.
It's a Jungle In Here (1993)Their second album, with horn arrangements by Steven Bernstein (of Sex Mob fame), this is what introduced me to the band. This is also where they first gave the world a taste of their avant-groove sound, which they applied to diverse ideas such as King Sunny Ade's "Moti Mo" and John Coltrane's "Syeeda's Song Flute". All of the originals are excellent as well, especially "Where's Sly?", but the medley of Bob Marley's "Lively Up Yourself" with Thelonius Monk's "Bemsha Swing" is the true gem of the album.
Friday Afternoon in the Universe (1995) This album was probably their biggest break-through, and given its lack of guests, it was much truer to the band's live sound than its more heavily arranged predecessor. Many of the songs became live classics, including "Last Chance to Dance Trance", "Chubb Subb" and "Lover".
Shack-Man is probably the most accessible album in their catalog, though it doesn't completely eschew their avant-garde roots. It definitely has a Booker T and the MG's feel to it, particularly on the opening track, a reworking of the gospel classic "Is there Anyone Here that Love My Jesus?" This may be the best place to start for the casual listener, particularly a jam band lover who is not predisposed toward jazz.
Combustication (1998) DJ Logic joins the group for their Blue Note debut, which was produced by Wu-Tang engineer Scotty Hard. This album is tight and focused, yet still shows their exploratory strengths. If you’re only going to hear one MMW album, make it this one. Almost every track is excellent, but I’d especially recommend “Latin Shuffle” and the gospel-tinged cover of “Everyday People”.
Uninvisible (2002) Again featuring DJs, but supplemented by the Antibalas horns on several tracks, this album is a great listen, though it may not be as groundbreaking as the ones that preceded it. “Smoke and “Off the Table” are two of the better tracks.
End of the World Party [Just In Case] (2004) This may be the greatest of MMW’s albums; it showcases their songwriting and musicianship, rather than their improvisation, which is better suited to a live setting. As such, there are several gems here, most notably “Sasa” and “Mami Gato”.
Radiolarians (2008-2009) These three albums are united by the concept which drove their construction: write material on the road, with the audience’s input. While a few ideas were sketched out in rehearsal, the details of the songs were fleshed out on tour, in front of fans. Then the band went into the studio to record. This flips the traditional model of write, record, then tour to support, on its head. One might think the songs would degenerate into loosely composed jam sessions as a result of this, but surprisingly, they hang together very well. Check out “Cloud Wars” and “Professor Nohair”.
Suggested Listening Many of those albums are excellent, but what sets MMW apart from just about any other band out their, is their tremendous ability to create, in the moment. Though these videos can't do justice to what is like to see them perform, they do give you a feel for their live sound. Watch them, and don't miss their Bonnaroo show!
One of the first songs that attracted many to MMW, particularly in a live setting, was Bubblehouse. A simple, funky song with a repeated riff, the group speeds it up and winds it down seamlessly while always working the crowd into a dancing frenzy:
“Big Time” is one of their more rhythmic, dissonant numbers, but it is always amazing live:
In this Halloween performance of “Partido Alto”, Medeski is aptly dressed as a many-armed Hindu god. It’s often difficult to visualize how he can make all those sounds, in perfect rhythm, with just two hands. Cyro Baptista joins on percussion here as well.
Check out the boys covering the Fela Kuti classic, Egbe Mi O:
One more live performance vid, of the funky “End of the World Party”:
This is a delightful trailer for a movie about the making of their Radiolarians series:
Finally, just for fun. This cartoon video made for a song from their children’s album is thoroughly enjoyable for all ages
Physical Reaction/Live Show I've seen MMW 7 times, and I'll be hitting shows 8 and 9 in June. Each concert has been a unique masterpiece, creative and improvisational while never suffering from the queued soloing often featured by jazz combos or the aimless noodling characteristic of most jam bands. These guys can play in any style, and can shift styles seamlessly at any time. It is truly a pleasure to watch and hear them interact on stage.
What you got back home, little sister, to play your fuzzy warbles on? I bet you got little save pitiful, portable picnic players. Come with uncle and hear all proper! Hear angel trumpets and devil trombones. You are invited.