The Magic of Medeski Martin & Wood

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.

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Selected @ Random: Weather Report – Mysterious Traveller

When you hear the phrase “weather report” I’m sure that for most of you the first thing that comes to your head is what the forecast will be for the next few days. However, for me (and maybe a few of you) I usually think of the jazz fusion group. It’s also likely that most of you don’t listen to much jazz, and for that matter fusion. This is understandable; yet still a shame in my eyes. Jazz is one of the most expressive and artistic forms of music, if only because it is based around improvisation which is fueled by the emotions and ideas of the artists performing, and not notes that are written down on paper.

But I’m getting (slightly) off the point.

Weather Report was one of the first true jazz fusion group and probably the most successful and acclaimed of all fusion bands. Anyone who played in a junior high or high school jazz band knows their infamous hit, “Birdland,” even if they were unaware of the fact that it was even a Weather Report song. What also made the band unique was that unlike most of the other seminal 70s fusion groups, there wasn’t a single perceived leader. Mahavishnu Orchestra had John McLaughlin, Return to Forever had Chick Corea, The Tony Williams Lifetime had, well, Tony Williams, and the Headhunters were essentially Herbie Hancock’s backing band. Instead, Weather Report was founded and led by keyboardist Josef Zawinul and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. The group was notorious for changing personnel, and though bassists Miroslav Vitous and Jaco Pastorious were incredibly impactful on the group (especially the latter), it was always Zawinul and Shorter’s group.

To take a second to clarify what jazz fusion is, for those of you who don’t know, it is a style of music that fused jazz and rock together. It was born out of the late 1960s work of Miles Davis, particularly In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. For the most part, the music is mainly instrumental and heavy on improvisation and soloing (like jazz), but incorporated rock instruments like synthesizers and electric guitars and basses, along with having rhythms that were less swung. In my mind, this genre of music is where musicians really show their chops, because if you can play true jazz fusion, you can play almost anything.

So now that I’ve given a brief synopsis of jazz fusion, we can move on to the album at hand.

Mysterious Traveller was the band’s fifth record (fourth recorded in the studio) and was recorded at a time when the band was in the middle of massive changes, both musically and personnel-wise. Musically, the band was already moving away from it’s initial sound of being more experimental and free, and more towards rock and funk, both in sound and structure. This is not to say that the band was giving up on jazz, because that is far from the case. It is just that the band was creating songs that were more structured, and adding more grooves in the song. With this change in style, original bassist Miroslav Vitous left the group, replaced by Alphonso Johnson (who would be replaced by Jaco Pastorious a few years later). With this replacement the band’s future sound was solidified, and Mysterious Traveller was the first step towards the band’s ultimate ascension to greatness.

The album opens with the bombastic, and slightly chaotic, “Nubian Sundance.” Filled with instrumental and vocal overdubs (though no lyrics), the song is driven by the relentless drum beat from Ishmael Washburn (which is doubled by session player Skip Hadden) and the frenetic percussion playing of Dom Um Romao. But as is the case in most Weather Report songs (especially those written by him, as is the case) the keyboards and synthesizers of Joe Zawinul dominate. Of course, this is far from being a negative, since Zawinul is able to intertwine and layer melodic lines that fit perfectly with the percussive chaos that fills the air. Alphonse Johnson’s bass work is less of a backbone and more musical decoration, while Wayne Shorter’s saxophone can be heard sporadically at the beginning and end of the track.

The slower, more ethereal “American Tango” follows. Co-written by Vitous (along with Zawinul), it is his swan song with the band, playing upright bass on the track (his only appearance on the album), and it’s a pretty damn lovely one. All of the members of the band do any excellent job creating musical lines that dance and play with each other, creating a strangely beautiful feeling, which is only interrupted by a seemingly out of place bridge that delves a bit into a harder, funkier groove for a small time.

The third track, “Cucumber Slumber,” is the funkiest on the album, and my favorite.  Co-written by Johnson and Zawinul, this track does a great job of showing off all three melodic players’ chops, especially Johnson, who lays down some incredibly tasty and funky grooves that are strengthened by Washburn and Romao. Shorter is given almost free reign to play over the first half of the song, while Zawinul gets the second half. This type of soloing anchors the tune in the jazz realm, which makes it super fun to listen to as it intermingles with the funky backbeat.

The Shorter composed “Mysterious Traveller” follows and presents an incredible mix of funk and jazz over through several time signature changes, creating a very alien vibe. The song builds through the repeating heads (aka verses), until the chorus hits when the melodic players are once again given space to have an improvised conversation. The intricacies and layers  of sounds that are skillfully placed in this song are amazing, adding true depth to the song.

The next two songs, “Blackthorn Rose” and “Scarlet Woman,” are both beautiful ballad-esque pieces. The first is a duet performed by Shorter and Zawinul, in which both musicians’ talents and mastery of their instruments shine brightly. “Scarlet Woman” is a little more aggressive than its predecessor, adding Johnson into the mix, and a guest timpanist, by the name of Steve Little, into the mix. A few wonderful things about this song is that you hear how beautiful Zawinul’s synthesizer arrangements can be, and there is a few seconds of fuzz bass, something extremely rare in jazz.

The album closes with “Jungle Book,” another piece by Zawinul. The song truly makes the listener feel like you are a child running through a jungle, playing around the fauna, taking in as much of the scenery as possible. Guest musician Don Ashworth’s ocarina is absolutely gorgeous, complimenting Zawinul’s playing. This song also foreshadows how Zawinul’s career would head towards world music after Weather Report broke up.

All in all, Mysterious Traveller is a fantastic album by Weather Report and I would think (or at least hope) that jazz lovers would truly enjoy it. However, if you aren’t already a big fan of fusion, jazz, and/or world music, it may not being something you will readily enjoy, and would suggest getting Black Market, Heavy Weather, or the live album 8:30 to ease into listening to Weather Report. Yet, I still think that it is worth a listen, especially for true music lovers. There is so much depth and beauty in each song, and at some points so much groove, that it’s an album that can be listened to many times, with each listen being a new experience, truly making it a piece of art.

Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood – MSMW Live: In Case the World Changes Its Mind

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.”)