Tour de Force

Medeski Martin & Wood is the Grateful Dead of jazz bands

In 1991, the newly minted groove-jazz trio Medeski Martin and Wood was eyeing yet another gig at Knitting Factory in Manhattan. They knew that playing once a month at the hip experimental music Mecca would simply not do over the long haul. So they piled into drummer Billy Martin's Ford van and lit out for short jaunts in the Northeast, playing small venues, some of them rock clubs, crashing on floors, kickin' it DIY style.A couple years later and a record deal with Gramavision in tow, MM&W traded up to an RV and toured so endlessly that they canceled the leases on their Brooklyn apartments. In the process, the threesome gave birth to a novel concept: jazz group as itinerant jam band. Others followed. In a fashion, MM&W were retracing the footsteps of 1930s Ellington, Basie et al., who, even at the height of their popularity, played dances throughout the land. The intrepid trio decided to bring the music to the people instead of remaining hermetically sealed in a haven of highbrow. Once on their feet, they rented an enclave in the jungles of Hawaii's Big Island, where they periodically convened to chill, jam and roll tape.

"When we went out on tour, we saw bands like Widespread Panic and Phish," recalls keyboardist John Medeski during a phone interview. "We didn't know any of this music. Billy and (bassist) Chris (Wood) didn't know the Dead if it hit them in the head.

"But what we saw was a business model," Medeski continues, with a little chuckle at the biz reference. "We looked at guys like Fugazi — not on the radio but playing live music, good music. We saw it as a way that we wouldn't have to play weddings."

Their edge? This was no ordinary jazz trio. Medeski and Wood were refugees from the New England Conservatory of Music. The keyboardist signed on as a classical pianist but soon moved into the forward-thinking Third Stream (rather than the Jazz) department, which emphasized, Medeski says, "ear training, developing your own style. Not codifying the music but absorbing it in an aural way."

Martin had worked in an array of musical settings, from avant-jazz to world music. The trio kick-started their collaboration, not surprisingly, by jamming.

The resulting sound, which has gone through a plethora of nuances and variations, has long been built on a funk foundation. Martin's drumming is loose-limbed, highly syncopated and fluid, with more than a touch of that lagging-behind-the-beat New Orleans thing. Wood is equally facile with the woody boom of the acoustic bass and the sinewy electric. Medeski is an inveterate soundscapist. His gear includes the Hammond B-3, generally pushed to distortion, the rugged Wurlitzer organ and clavinet, as well as an array of analog synths. He eschews stock lines and licks for percussive thrusts, strident riffs, shards of dissonance and other sonic flotsam. In effect — an unbridled exploration of sound rather than harmonically correct progressions of notes.

Over the years, MM&W have sprinkled in turntables, African-flavored horns, dub effects, spoken word, ambient singing and other elements to continually thicken their sound. An apt culmination of their myriad sensibilities can be heard in this year's excellent Uninvisible (Blue Note).

On stage, it all coalesces into free-ranging, danceable excursions that are just as apt to spew gospel fervor as hip-hop flava. And yet the band retains enough connection to the organ-driven hard-bop of the '50s/'60s to please quite a few jazz diehards.

"The whole idea is to create a certain energy and outlet for us, so we can get to that place, musically and spiritually, and take the audience there," Medeski explains. "The songs are vehicles to a certain state, a transcendent place, a cathartic event. The point is not so much the song but where does it take you."

Generally speaking, MM&W takes their audience on helluva head and body trip.

Contact Associate Editor Eric Snider at 813-248-8888, ext. 114, or e-mail him at [email protected].