My introduction to Medeski, Martin & Wood came about four and a half years ago while I was in New Orleans for a riverboat-cruise gig during one of the Jazz Fest weekends. I was driving to the dock with my drums and I happened to pass a JF event featuring MMW and Galactic. Furry, drunken third-generation hippies were sloshing out into the street and gamely doing a version of what I've come to believe is a Jerry G shuffle, knee-deep in the empty cups and keg beer oozing in front of the performance tent. The sight of Corona-swilling dolts in shorts, sandals, and tie-dyed T-shirts -- pardon the hippie-bashing -- choogling made me queasy, but I had the car windows down and the soundtrack to this beery bash was surprisingly smart and tuneful.
No meandering Widespread guitar boogie or forced Meters nostalgia (that patch would be best left to New Orleans' Galactic who are definitely not in the same class as the Meters when they had Ziggy Modeliste as their drummer apologies to Galactic Stanton Moore one decent drummer can't save a sinking, stinking jam-band ship with his pretty-tasty playing) wafted out of the speakers to accompany the vision in front of the tent. The closest comparison I could come up with was organist Jimmy Smith, who churned out a ton of "soul jazz" organ trio records in the '60s. Funky like Smith but with a bit better material than the cover versions Jimmy (or, more likely, his producers at Verve) picked for that endless string of albums he did back then. I pulled over and listened awhile until I had to leave for my sparsely attended riverboat throwdown. I made a mental note to not be prejudiced against a great-sounding band with such an ugly-looking audience.
And there's the rub or at least a question worth asking: How can such a rotten musical context (meaning the stank-hippie jam-band scene there I go again) give birth to such a sharp-sounding group like Medeski, Martin & Wood? A butt-burning question that this prejudiced geezer can't find a reasonable answer for. Maybe there's something wrong with my less than generous perception (you think so? duh) of this milieu. Perhaps indulging in endless, aimless solos with clattering rhythm sections that strain soooo hard to be funky is a worthy approach for bands trying to reach the bong-huffing, record-buying market currently ensconced in dorm rooms all across America. No matter what context MMW sprang from, they simply sound good and transcend any jam-band connotations. End of the hateful anti-hippie diatribe, I promise.
Okay, so what is it that separates MMW from the noodling, doodling crowd? What puts them head and shoulders above the 10-minute conga-solo brigade? First off, their rhythm section, Billy Martin on drums and Chris Wood on bass, plays together seamlessly in the way that Al Jackson Jr. and Duck Dunn did. (No, I'm not overstating this bass/drums combination here; they are as "locked-in" as Duck and Al were on their Stax stuff.) They know how to groove in an easy manner without driving a riff into the ground, and they always sound funky in an unforced way.
Their choice of instruments and the resulting tone probably have a lot to do with how different MMW sound from the rest of the pile-driving jam-band herd. Wood plays a Hofner Beatle bass (you know, the violin-shaped bass Paul McCartney played during most of his tenure with that group; in fact, he's still playing it 40 years later), which sounds warm and less than well-defined. No modern basses for this boy, no thumb-slapping of strings (ugh) either. Martin plays a vintage four-piece budget-line drum kit made by Rogers in the mid-'60s and uses only hi-hats and a ride as cymbals. No multi-tom kits with a dozen useless crash cymbals for Martin, just a basic drum set with no frills on which he plays the beat of a song and not much else. Martin cut his teeth playing with trumpet player Chuck Mangione in the '80s, so you have to surmise that pounding the tubs along to such horrible scra with the greasy-haired, bearded one prepared him to drum in such a tasteful, minimal way with MMW.
And then there's John Medeski on keyboards. More specifically, he plays organ, piano, and clavinet. He's not exactly a minimalist, more like a percussive keyboard player in the way that the melodic instrument players in James Brown's '60s touring band all played percussion lines. Everybody played drums in JB's band then, more or less. Medeski has been known to use a Hammond B-3 organ wash (à la Booker T. Jones, Steve Winwood, Garth Hudson, and even James Brown himself on the instrumental organ-led LPs he cut for Smash Records) in live performance. On record he plays simple, funky lines that perfectly complement Wood and Martin. His clavinet playing is particularly reminiscent of Sly Stone on There's A Riot Goin' On.
Their last four records for Blue Note (let's see, that's Combustication, the live Tonic, where they returned to an acoustic trio setup of piano/bass/drums, The Dropper, and this year's Uninvisible) have all sounded very much alike to these tired old ears. The Dropper had Marc Ribot on guitar, Tonic was all-acoustic, and Uninvisible had some horns, but they keep making the same good record over and over again. No objections to that practice from this hack. Prog rockers and earache experimentalists MMW ain't. If anything, they're the unlikely realization of one of blowhard Brian Eno's mid-'70s musical concepts -- grid-like music that sounds as if it has no beginning or ending. They are also very easy to dance to, so watch out for leadfooted, dirtbag hippies at the New Daisy on Saturday, December 7th. Just close your eyes and listen without prejudice.
New Daisy Theatre
Saturday, December 7th