There are artists. There are bands. There are supergroups. There are musical collectives. And then there is Medeski Martin & Wood. Not just simply a band that makes music, the trio is musical force that embodies the essence of what Jazz (and essentially making music) is all about.
Having been together for over 20 years, it would be easy to simply say that the three members, John Medeski (keyboards), Billy Martin (percussion), and Chris Wood (bass), have a good musical rapport with each, but that would be doing a disservice to what they really have: a connection so strong that it’s almost palpable during live performances (well, you know what I mean). If you sat down and listened to all of their studio albums in chronological order, you would be able to not only hear a progression in their musical style, but also in the cohesiveness of their playing together. The bond the three have is, at this point, unbreakable and, in my mind, permanent. Each member has done several side projects over the course of the band’s career, yet instead of splintering, these breaks have made the group more creative and loose, and more connected on stage. Every time the group puts out a new studio album, I always wonder if they still have ideas left, and every time I’m amazed at how the band is able to create songs that sound fresh and new, but still have that MMW sound and feel.
And then there are their live shows, which are not just musical performances, but experiences. Seeing the trio live is like watching master artisans create a masterpiece in front of your eyes, because, well, it is just that. Normally, when you see a band, particularly a rock band, you know what you’re going to get. You know what they are going to sound like and you’re pretty sure of a few songs that will be played. With a MMW show, you never know what to expect. Sure, if they are touring to support an album, you can assume they will play a few tracks from it, but like any other jazz artist/group you never know how it will actually sound. But unlike many jazz performances, the band also loves to throw in chunks of free improvisation that may or may not lead into a song. By changing up setlists every night it keeps things fresh for the audience, and I can only imagine it keeps things fresh for the band. Yet no matter what you hear, you know that the quality and execution of the music will be at a truly elite level.
This can all be heard on the band’s newest release, Free Magic, a live album that captures the band during their 2007 acoustic tour. As you listen to the album, you can hear how in the pocket the three are with each other, allowing each to seemingly do their own thing at the same time during solo and improv sections, yet still being aware of each other, enabling them to create spontaneous, magical moments. The maturity of the band is also audible, especially when compared to the group’s previous live, acoustic album, Tonic, which was taken from performances in 1999, 8 years prior to this material, but also only 8 years into the band’s existence. While Tonic oozes with energy and ferocity, it lacks the cohesiveness within the band that Free Magic showcases. Tonic also has the sound of the band trying to force themselves into a box, saying, “We know we’re known for being an organ-based jazz-funk trio, but we can also play REAL jazz!” whereas Free Magic sounds like the band trying to push their own collective boundaries by limiting the available sonic materials, yet still challenging themselves to create a masterpiece. It’s amazing what an extra 8 years of playing together can do.
Each of the five tracks on Free Magic has its own identity. The opener, “Doppler,” is the typical MMW show opener, having about 6 minutes of free improvisation from the group before the trio locks into the tune. The song, eventually recorded for the group’s 2011 digital-only album 20, has a moderate groove that allows the group to easily play with each other and gives the soloist enough room to really move around. The second track, “Blues For Another Day,” is more mercurial in feel, going from total chaos to a slow blues, before slowing building up back into the chaos, ending, once again, with the slow blues. If anything this song shows the collective control and communication the group has, which is just one example of what makes their live shows so much fun. This is followed by “Free Magic/Ballade in C minor, ‘Vergessene Seelen’,” a combination of an 8 minute free improvisation and 4 minute, eery sounding song that haunts, yet still grooves. This is the only track that features a non-acoustic instrument; Chris Wood plays his Hofner bass. “Where’s Sly?” is next up, and though the song was originally recorded with Medeski playing electric piano and a horn section (on It’s a Jungle In Here), it is as beautiful as ever. The sonic landscape that was created on the studio release is reinvented with the sheer beauty of the sound that comes from Medeski playing a baby grand piano. Halfway through the track, a Billy Martin drum solo appears, showcasing the percussionist’s arsenal of toys and ideas, closing out the track. The album closes with a “medley” of tunes by Charles Mingus and Sun Ra, “Nostalgia In Times Square/Angel Race.” The group does justice to both songs, of course adding their own twist to the tunes, showing that the trio are still students and admirers of the greats that came before them.
Hearing the band in this type of setting is one thing, but seeing them live (like I’ve said before) is another story. The main difference is watching the talent that is John Medeski. Yes, Chris Wood and Billy Martin were amazing, as they always are, but what they were doing was not unique to a MMW show. Normally, Medeski is surrounded by keyboards, organs, and an acoustic piano, and most of his prodigal playing is overshadowed by the sounds that he is creating, which I must admit are always amazing. Yet, on this recording and on their recent acoustic tour, which I was able to witness on October 8 at the Bergen Performing Arts Center, he was only armed with a baby grand piano, a “prepared” upright piano, and a melodica. Being able to watch his hands effortlessly move across the keys, and hearing the ideas that just spew from his brain, was eye-opening. I have always been in awe of the man’s ability to play, but seeing it in its raw, natural form for two hours, without the veil of synthesized sounds, was truly an experience. (Watch this clip from the Englewood show, which I did not take, of the band doing Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds” to see what I’ve been talking about.)
Though I’m incredibly biased towards this band, I cannot stress enough how talented the trio are, and how after 20 years they have not only gotten better, but they’ve been able to continue to sound fresh. None of their albums or their shows are ever the same, so every time you listen to or see them, it’s always a new experience. So do yourself a favor, and take a listen, if you haven’t already, and even if you don’t like what hear, just allow yourself to experience their music, because it’s something special. Hell, it really is (at times) magic.