March 12, 2008

If the World Ended, We'd Party With These Guys

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Medeski Martin & Wood is the best jazz trio, if not musical group, of any genre playing and recording today. And despite the fact that they’ve been together for more than fifteen years and have been hitting the road harder than most other acts, time hasn’t had any detrimental effect on either their musicianship nor their productivity. This year alone, for example, MMW plans to write new material, tour and then record — and repeat that three times. A bunch of friends and myself were lucky enough to catch the group on one of the first dates for their first round of touring a week and a half ago at the State Theatre.
MMW has been together since the early 1990s. Their first release was the brilliant, entirely acoustic It’s A Jungle In Here. The album reinvents old jazz and reggae standards, includes some of New York’s most phenomenal guitarists and horn players, and, as its defining feature, locks every song into a seamless groove that’s unshakable.
It’s their foundation plus more than a decade of playing with each other that came together so well last Wednesday. Throughout the entire show MMW seemed to be improvising: there was a lot of impromptu communication on stage, themes were developed during a solo and then presented again as a composed melody and the group even took time away from their instruments — Medeski on keyboards, Martin on electric and stand-up basses and Wood on drums and percussion — to offer the a hand drum jam. Other than one line faintly recognizable from a kids album MMW released late last year, none of it was familiar, even to the Ithaca crowd who clearly knew the group’s entire discography.
Aspects of Medeski Martin & Wood seem so simple. Billy Martin’s drumming is utterly effortless. According to a master jazz percussionist who came to teach classes and perform on campus, ideally, a drummer should be able to move all four limbs independently so that he or she can produce any rhythm with any tambour. This is a nearly impossible task, but Billy Martin is one of the few I’ve seen that does so with ease. The most amazing part of his performance was probably when he played a tambourine — yes, only a tambourine. His speed and dexterity produced music I never even dreamed possible with such a quaint instrument.
Chris Wood is an interesting player because his virtuosity is still humble, as he can hold down a 20-minute jam playing the same two notes on a Fender P-Bass. As opposed to boring, Wood’s bass playing works a bit like the bass in heavy electronic music: it locks in both the rhythmic and melodic aspects of the music and offers something consistent and pulsating to the listener. Of course, he is just as able on the hand-busting upright jazz bass, running his fingers up and down walking lines and using his bow to create a certain tension when necessary.
The star of the show, though he would never call himself that, is John Medeski. The man is a mad scientist of keyboards and a madman in general — these are two defining qualities of genius musicianship. Medeski constructs unheard chords chock full of feeling and beauty, and he can do so playing two different instruments at the same time. Even when it looks like he’s just banging, every note is played for a reason. Medeski (and only Medeski) took a few solos during the show and played a beautiful Steinway grand piano, and the intensity of his playing reverberated throughout the entire hall. And when the rest of the trio joined him — improvised, but right on cue — it was magical.