MEDESKI, MARTIN & WOOD
Hart Theatre @ The Egg - Albany, NY
April 5, 2006
by J Hunter
This was not your grandfather's jazz show - unless your grandfather wears Phish t-shirts and has a Gov't Mule bumper sticker on his New Beetle.
Medeski, Martin & Wood has never tried to steer by any star but their own. With the 1993 release of It's A Jungle In Here (Grammavision), MMW - keyboardist John Medeski, drummer/percussionist Billy Martin, and bassist Chris Wood - slammed the organ-trio tradition roughly onto its ear and treated it the way David Beckham treats errant soccer balls. Since then, the band has released a string of increasingly ground-breaking discs that mix jazz with rock, funk, reggae, hip-hop, and just about any other genre you can name.
So what does a group do when it's the darling of the Jam Band movement, and has just released a compilation entitled Note Bleu - The Best of the Blue Note Years, 1998 - 2005? Well, if you're MMW, you chuck the samples, scratches, and synthesizers that have become part of your trademark, and go do an acoustic tour.
Well, okay, the night wasn't completely acoustic; Wood had two Fender basses in addition to the mammoth stand-up he played for the lion's share of the evening. That aside, this was a trip out on the wire that could have gone either way, depending on the reaction of the neo-hippies that packed the Hart Theatre. If the dancing in the aisles was any indication, that reaction was decidedly positive.
But what other reaction could there be? This show was all about fun, from the moment Medeski - playing a purple Melodica, a hand-held wind-driven baby keyboard made famous in the 80s by Philadelphia pop band the Hooters - led his cohorts onstage and into an infinitely layered grooveathon that snaked through an hour and ten minutes before the band took a breath, and an intermission. They went out the same way two hours later, only this time Wood was hopping his stand-up behind Medeski's harmonica-like wailing while Martin played a percussion sound that was a cross between a DJ break and a wet finger rubbing on a window. (The crowd had to cut off the standing ovation the band so richly deserved, because they were still playing a minute after they bopped offstage, and we wanted to hear every last note.) In between, MMW touched on everyone from Lee Morgan to P.J. Harvey, as well as on its own voluminous catalog.
Medeski stirred this stew from the jump, both in song choice and intensity. Renowned for the banks of keyboards that surround him onstage like a latter-day Keith Emerson, the balding classically trained pianist showed that eighty-eight keys is all he needs. Medeski's fiery playing had the black Steinway grand piano swaying so badly, I was convinced the legs would give out like at the end of a Warner Brothers cartoon; one of the stage crew had to crawl out during the band's riotous take on Ray Charles' What'd I Say and shore up the instrument's bracing.
Wood watched Medeski like a hawk all evening, occasionally alerting Martin to an oncoming direction change. This was necessary because the long-haired drummer was pretty much in his own world, flying between the drums, gongs, bells and blocks that were spread out in front, behind, and beneath him to create every kind of backbeat. Wood contributed several flavors of funk while proving why John Lee made a mistake when he chose to play Fender bass instead of a stand-up when the Dizzy Gillespie All-Stars played Troy Savings Bank last month. The stand-up has a fuzziness (and a nastiness) the Fender just can't duplicate, especially when Wood slams the strings in fine Townshendian fashion, provoking chords that brought cheers time after time.
It's unclear whether this concert (and this 4-city mini-tour) was a simple palate cleanser, a real direction change, or just a lark to prove MMW doesn't need technological bells & whistles to get its groove thing on. A lack of cohesion to the second set hinted that the band is still tweaking this concept. What is clear is that - unlike The Bad Plus, who seem to find glee in shocking its listeners - Medeski, Martin & Wood are dedicated to the proposition that technical exploration and downright fun are not mutually exclusive. Hey, there's a time to be serious, and a time to get up and dance. I'll be serious later.
J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.