Medeski, Martin & Wood

Medeski, Martin & Wood

by James Hale

copyright © 2002 James Hale

Jazz fans and musicians never paid much heed to the Grateful Dead, put off by the rock group's musical sloppiness and psychedelic lyrics, but Deadheads have had the last laugh with the ascendancy of Medeski Martin & Wood, who have ridden a Dead-influenced touring, recording and marketing esthetic to stardom in just 10 years.

The New York City-based trio of keyboardist John Medeski, drummer Billy Martin and bassist Chris Wood, which performs Tuesday in Southam Hall of the National Arts Centre, is unarguably part of the lineage that includes Duke Ellington, Sun Ra and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. But MM&W also has much in common with turntablists, sound "assemblers" like Bill Laswell and jam bands like Phish. With its interactive Web site, logo-bearing toques and liberal audience-taping policy, MM&W seems every inch the contemporary band-cum-marketing machine. That they can both improvise at an extremely high level and groove an audience into a trance is more than mere icing on the cake. Make no mistake: MM&W didn't make it to the top of the Down Beat critics' poll or into soft-seat concert halls like the NAC by aggressive brand management alone.

The band's eight recordings reveal exceptionally broad range -- from nods to jazz masters like John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk on 1993's It's A Jungle In Here to funky groove sessions with DJ Logic on 1998's Combustication. Not only is this group able to leap deftly from an all-acoustic live session like Tonic to a dense, electronic avant-garde extravaganza like The Dropper in less than a year; from minute to minute MM&W can shift from quasi-African rhythms to clanging techno beats. For those with an attention span developed prior to the advent of music videos, it might seem to verge on pastiche, but MM&W's artistry lies in making it work.

Individually, the members of MM&W come by musical diversification naturally. Each followed varied paths to get to their meeting at New York's Village Gate nightclub in 1991. John Medeski, the 35-year-old erstwhile leader of the group, spent his pre-school years in Kentucky before his parents moved to Chicago and then settled in Fort Lauderdale. Always precocious -- he could read before he could talk -- Medeski never fit in well at public school, but was gifted enough as a pianist to land at the New England Conservatory. Although still on track to become a classical performer, Medeski began to improvise more and more, and steered himself toward study with acknowledged jazz leaders like Bob Moses and Ran Blake. Like many musicians who attended college in Boston, he also put in time learning the art of making music with the Either/Orchestra big band before moving to New York.

Billy Martin -- the oldest member of the group at 36 -- is a lifelong New Yorker whose father is a classical violinist. Although he attended a prep school operated by the Manhattan School of Music, Martin eschewed a formal education to play as much as possible. It would be difficult to find a broader range of employers than mellow-jazz trumpeter Chuck Mangione and angry young artist John Zorn, but Martin worked for both. Coincidentally, Bob Moses -- Medeski's onetime teacher -- became a mentor.

Chris Wood grew up a continent away, in Pasadena, California, and Boulder, Colorado. His university professor father was an amateur guitarist, and music always filled their home. By high school, the young Wood was playing in rock bands and hooking up with an entertainment-booking agency to work at weddings and other social events. Like Medeski, Wood chose the New England Conservatory -- primarily for the presence of bassist Dave Holland -- but school agreed with him even less than it did his future bandmate. He dropped out after one semester, stuck around Boston for another year to advantage of private lessons with Holland, Moses and others, then headed to New York.

Although Medeski and Wood had played together once in Boston, it wasn't until both were in Manhattan that a real connection was made, and then only when Martin came on the scene. The trio wound up as a house rhythm section at the Village Gate, one of the oldest clubs in Greenwich Village, and sparks flew. Before they had even officially become a band they recorded their first CD, the independently released Notes From The Underground.

Briefly named Coltrane's Wig, MM&W solidified around rehearsals at the Martin family residence in suburban New Jersey and signed with Grammavision Records to record It's A Jungle In Here. At the same time, the band started venturing out from New York, hitting the road for brief jaunts in an RV. Band legend has it that MM&W's organ- and synth-heavy sound was dictated by the fact that Medeski couldn't take a piano on the road. Whatever the case, the band's core sound -- influenced by funky organ masters Jimmy Smith, Larry Young and Lonnie Smith -- struck a chord with listeners and its fan base began to expand.

By 1994, having recorded "Friday Afternoon In The Universe", the band members found themselves home so seldom that they gave up their New York apartments and became full-time denizens of the road. They toured for almost two years without a real break. The tactic made the band's reputation, as did the ever-changing music and the Deadhead philosophy of encouraging fans to record concerts and trade the results on the Internet.

Five years ago, MM&W decided a change was needed. They left the road for a secluded house in Hawaii, recorded a breakthrough CD called Shack-man, cashed in their chips with Grammavision and put roots down again in Manhattan. Their eight-week, Monday night residency at the Knitting Factory drew numerous guest artists, garnered widespread media attention and ignited the kind of record label bidding war that is almost unheard of in jazz circles.

Seventeen labels joined the fray, with Blue Note emerging on top. With the marketing clout of an international company and respected jazz brandname behind them, MM&W was able to throttle back on its touring schedule and concentrate on expanding its musical horizons. Their Blue Note debut -- Combustication -- saw them add DJ Logic on turntables for three songs and venture into spoken-word, as well, with Steve Cannon's tribute to Kansas City's contributions to jazz. Combustication was also released in remix format, the result of handing the mixing board over to people like Bill Laswell, Guru, Automator and Yuka Honda.

For a band as popular a concert draw as MM&W a live recording seemed an obvious move. Leave it these contrarians to base it around a run of all-acoustic performances and then follow it up quickly with their densest studio recording to date. In addition to exploring a broader range of instrumentation themselves, The Dropper also introduced a new cast of guest players into the MM&W orbit, including former Sun Ra sideman Marshall Allen on alto saxophone, percussionist Eddie Bobe and violinist Charlie Burnham.

The Dropper also marked the introduction of Shacklyn, the band's Brooklyn studio, one of several indications that MM&W have arrived. Another sign of the band's newfound success is the emergence of side projects, such as Martin's specialty label, Amulet Records, and Medeski's band The Word, which features the North Mississippi All-Stars and steel guitar wizard Robert Randolph. Rather than signs of rampant ego, the extra-musical trappings like the logo, the line of apparel, custom label and the like are just another sign that MM&W has excelled in learning the lessons of the Dead. Fans might well hope that the trio adopts one other Dead hallmark: longevity.

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