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Medeski Martin and Wood Celebrate 20 Years of Groundbreaking Jazz

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Jazz bands have their own kind of dynamic. Usually there is a band leader who writes all or most of the tunes, and the group size is listed after the name, hence the Miles Davis Quintet or the Bill Evans Trio. It's jazz shorthand that tells fans more or less what to expect when they are scanning live listings, record bins and download sites.

From the beginning in 1991, Medeski Martin and Wood have been different. On the suggestion of downtown maven John Lurie of the Lounge Lizards, the band jokingly went by the somewhat controversial name Coltrane's Wig.

“It didn't really work, though in Knoxville, Tenn., they called us that for many years," John Medeski recalls to Spinner. “The reaction we got from owners of jazz clubs in other parts of the country was really funny. I wish I had a recording of when I would call and follow up," he says, laughing. “I guess it was a little irreverent, but we love Coltrane and we love wigs!"

The trio quickly switched to its current name, which sounds more like a law firm than a band, but it also summed up who they were as people—not a joke band or trio with a leader but a fully collaborative effort with keyboardist John Medeski, drummer Billy Martin and bassist Chris Wood. They weren't old-school jazz musicians. They weren't throwbacks in suits and ties. They were middle class 20-somethings who integrated the worlds of jazz, rock, avant-garde improvisation and other more esoteric influences. They played with jazz musicians, but Ray Charles, James Brown and Hermeto Pascoal were big influences, as were new emerging sounds like hip-hop and underground indie rock.

Now MMW celebrate 20 years together in a number of different ways. The band is doing its annual Camp MMW, a five-day event of musical workshops and performances that be held this August in the Catskills. The trio will play Central Park's Summerstage as well as a series of four shows at New York City's Whitney Museum, which will be in the tradition of past “Shack Parties," a completely improvisational section where special guests sit in with the band. There will also be a special songbook of the band's tunes issued by the noted sheet music publisher Hal Leonard. The band is doing special tours in the spring and fall where first set will feature fan requests voted on through Facebook for each stop in the tour.

“They kind of made our first set, and forced us to learn a bunch of older material, some stuff we had never played live before and other stuff we hadn't played in a long time, so that was kind of fun," Chris Wood says of the tour voting process. “Then we would have an improvised Shack Party during the second set, so that will be sort of a groove-oriented improvised set. That was good too. It was kind of the best of both worlds."

The combination is basically what MMW is famous for: Improvisational tacks that are as avant-garde as you can hear in the New York scene that spawned the band, and the rump-shaking grooves that are honed down to the structured tunes that appeared on such classics as 'It's a Jungle in Here,' 'Friday Afternoon in the Universe' and 'Shack Man.'

After a bidding war that included 17 labels, the band signed to Blue Note, releasing a series of studio savvy records like 'Combustication,' 'The Dropper,' 'Uninvisible' and 'End of the World Party: Just in Case.'

“We signed with Blue Note and it was the first time we had a decent budget," Medeski says. “That was were we really started to pull in, in terms of the studio, hip-hop and popular music on how we approach things."

These were denser and more textured albums, though the band still often played live in the studio. Guest musicians were not uncommon up to that point, but now DJ Logic, DJ Olive and P-Love all spent time on tour with the band and recorded in the studio with them and producers like Jon King of the Dust Brothers and Scotty Hard had major creative input.

Already road warriors, the trio went out on tours with the H.O.A.R.D.E. Festival and played opening slots for Phish and Dave Matthews Band in big arenas. Always searching for something fresh and new, the band ironically backtracked a bit, recording an acoustic live album called 'Tonic' at the beloved Lower East Side club of the same name. Their first album, 'Notes From the Underground,' was also an all-acoustic affair, but with 'Tonic' it was really about recapturing the intimacy of an acoustic group in a small room.

The band left Blue Note for the freedom of doing what they want, when they want and with whom they want. Recent years have found MMW touring on their own, again playing with John Scofield—they follow up Scofield's 'A Go Go' from 1998 with 2006's Medeski, Scofield, Martin and Wood's 'Out Louder' on the band's own label. According to Medeski, “We kept talking with Scofield and we kept saying that we needed to do something else because we never toured behind that other record. This time we also wanted to do it as a full collaboration because the last one was his tunes."

There was also the 'Radiolarians' project, which was released as a limited-edition boxed set that featured three CDs of new music, a live CD, a CD of remixes, a double LP and a DVD film directed by Billy Martin. 2011 will see the release of 20 new songs released digitally in pairs throughout the year.

Talking with band members, it's apparent that the reason they've made it 20 years together is because they continually strived to keep moving forward. It's how they stay creative and connected as people after all this time.

“They are still two of my favorite musicians," Wood points out. “These guys are really incredible and still have a lot of new stuff to offer. It's never dull, and they challenge me still. I never get bored with MMW."


Photo Credit
Liz Penta

This story appears courtesy of All About Jazz @ Spinner.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.

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