Most bands and musicians fall into a specific genre of music. Some create their own genre (or I should say a genre is born from their music). However, there are some musical acts that defy boundaries, creating music that doesn’t fit neatly into any categories. They simply make music, and really don’t care what it sounds like, just that it sounds good. Medeski Martin & Wood (MMW) is one of these bands.
Now, I cannot move on without stating MMW is one of my favorite bands. So yes, I am biased. VERY BIASED. But the fact is, these three musicians are masters of their craft. However, they are also students, and very good ones at that, taking cues from musicians past and present, and making truly genre-bending music. Though at their core they are a jazz group, they are not traditional jazz artists. Instead they take the essence of jazz (improvisation) and apply it to everything they do, no matter what kind of song they are playing.
But this is not an entry on the band (though I could easily write a very long one on them). No, this is a review of their most recent album, which also includes the incredibly talented (and genre-bending) guitarist, John Scofield. Together they are Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood, or MSMW.
Culled from their 2006 U.S. Tour, MSMW Live: In Case the World Changes Its Mind showcases the talents and power of the quartet, individually and as a group. The album is filled with a mix of songs that come from MSMW’s album, Out Louder, and the John Scofield album, A Go Go, which was recorded with MMW as the backing band; there is also a fantastic rendition of the traditional “Amazing Grace.” While both albums that the quartet recorded were fantastic, neither reaches the heights that this live double-CD does, and that is because of one simple reason: The band thrives in a live environment.
I was fortunate enough to see the band on the 2006 tour (which was to promote Out Louder) on the first night of the tour. Based on my previous experiences at MMW shows, my knowledge of John Scofield as being one of the greatest jazz guitarists on the planet, and the music that the quartet produced in the studio, I came into the show with high expectations. Not only were my expectations met, they were blown out of the water. I told my friend after the show (or was it after the first set?) that this was, musically, the best show I had ever been to. And this was only the first night of the tour! (For all of you non-performers out there, the first few nights of any string of performances are usually the roughest.) This album epitomizes what I experienced on that cold November night in Washington, D.C., and pushes it to the next level.
On every track you can hear the mastery of each musician. Billy Martin’s drumming is at his finest, moving from a solid backbeat to a free-time solo, and then back to being in the pocket without any effort. Chris Wood, ever the purveyor of the perfect bass groove, shows that he not only can be the backbone of the band, but also the leader, soloing in a way that you rarely hear from a bassist. Then there is John Medeski’s artistry on his keyboards, moving between many (seven?) different instruments at once enabling him to create sounds that blend and standout at the same time. And finally, you have John Scofield’s guitar work, which adds an enhancing element to a well-worn trio, seemingly completing their sound, without overshadowing, even when it is in the forefront.
Moving between jazz, soul, R&B, blues, rock, and avant-garde, the album is almost like a history of American music through the eyes and ears of crazy geniuses. There is no need to discuss individual tracks, because none of them stand out from the rest. They are a collection, all equal (at least to my ears) and all played at an extremely high level. However, as mentioned previously, the real power lies in the fact that this is a collection of (assumingly unedited) live recordings. The emotion and musical prowess that emits from each song is mindboggling. While every song has its own distinct structure, every solo you hear on each song was unique. They were not rehearsed. They were spontaneous. Add in the musical execution level, which is extremely high, and you get a truly fine collection of music.
In reality, this album is not for everyone. First of all, they are all instrumental tracks. That alone will alienate some people. Second, most of the tracks are between 8-10 minutes, some even longer. These songs need time to be taken in and processed. But for those people who truly LOVE music (specifically American music) and can appreciate musicianship at its highest level, they will enjoy this album. So, go forth all you music lovers, and take a listen to MSMW Live: In Case the World Changes Its Mind, by Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood. Your ears will thank you.
(For those of you who want a few tracks to check out, I suggest, “A Go Go,” “What Now,” “Little Walter Rides Again,” and “Hottentot.”)