Medeski, Martin & Wood: Making every gig count

DownBeat
(September, 2009 cover story)

A strange type of amoeboid protozoa builds its beautifully-patterned skeletons on the outside, subverting biology to emerge as one of Earth’s most artfully designed organisms. When these ocean-dwelling unicellular life forms die, their skeletons sink to the sea floor, contributing to an organic ooze that began to form millions of years ago. The creatures, radiolarians, seem to grow inside out. But this approach to creation actually protects and nourishes their core. Their beauty is peripheral to their growth as a species.

It’s in the same spirit that Medeski, Martin and Wood embarked on creating music for their new three-disc series, aptly titled, “Radiolarians.” The goal was to focus on composing a large amount of music, a process that nourishes their own core and growth as a band more than the act of recording albums ultimately does. Instead of keeping their patterns—in this case, musical ones—on the inside of a studio until they had a product to sell, they took them on the road, letting the material develop first.

In doing so, the trio has, in a sense, gone back to their own protozoan roots with their new compilation. Coming off a seven-plus-year stint under Blue Note’s wing, John Medeski, Billy Martin and Chris Wood formed their own label, bucking the entrenched record-then-tour major label pattern of making new music. Instead of recording new material and then touring in support of it, they came together to devise new music, tour those compositions while tweaking them from gig to gig, then record the best versions of what they’d been playing when they came off the road.

“It had a lot to do with getting to get together to write a lot of new music,” says bassist Chris Wood, recalling the impetus for the project. “It’s hard with our lives, families, city life. Back in the old days in the East Village when we were all living there—John and I even had an apartment together—we would play together all the time and write new music. Part of the plan was to adopt a structure where we had to get in and create a whole bunch of new music.”

The product of their work—a three disc series, plus an upcoming box set including remixes by DJ Logic and a DVD shot by the band—is aesthetically beautiful: full of challenging contrasts, new grooves, deep funk and out melodies. As DJ Logic puts it, “they each play like they have four hands instead of two, so it ends up sounding like 16 hands,” which makes for an endlessly diverse uses of time, melody and harmony. Whether the highlight of a tune involves a series of tweaked Afro-Caribbean beats or an intensely distorted clavinet that comes off like a rock guitar solo, you could just as easily teach theory seminar on the new music as you could throw down and dance to it.

But the process is nearly as important as the product for MMW, for whom it seems that the road, or maybe just the act of being in motion, is as much an unofficial fourth member as regular cohorts like Logic or John Scofield.

“[This approach] requires improvising and being in the moment and being open to changing things every night before we record it,” Martin says, aiming his voice at a cellular speakerphone while driving the band from a rainy outdoor show at Richmond, VA’s botanical garden to a gig in Baltimore. “That spirit of creating is much more alive than, say, making a record, playing the songs from the record and touring in the typical way that a lot of bands do.”

When the trio formed in the early 90s—a common bond being the centrifugal force of Bob Moses’ percussion ideas—they initially gigged at spots like the Village Gate, Tonic and the Knitting Factory. Those early days were also a more fertile time for jazz in New York, with rooms that incubated a group of artists who could afford to live in Manhattan on a musician’s wages, fostering a closer-knit scene than what exists in the city today.

They recorded an acoustic jazz album, “Notes From the Underground,” in 1992, but it wasn’t long before Medeski ditched his unwieldy requirement for an upright piano (a classical music student from age 5, the young prodigy resisted classical training in favor of the more open-minded education that the New England Conservatory could provide.) And so began MMW’s much-documented history of cross-country tours in Martin’s van and later, in their RV. And the more they toured, the better their work became, if you base that definition on sales and reviews. What seemed to stick from their second album, “It’s a Jungle In Here” (1993) to their third, “Friday Afternoon In the Universe,” was in many ways what was working in live shows; that is to say, original music, with plenty of nods to hip-shake-inducers from Ellington to Sly Stone but moreover a serious knack for unique rhythmic patters and unorthodox melodies.

Having escaped the East Village to explore a wider variety of sounds developing across the country and around the world, Medeski, Martin and Wood cemented their success by touring. But when that got them a record deal with Blue Note, it also meant a change in creating music the way that had worked for them for so long.
“The good thing [about having our own label] is that we own the music,” says Martin. “All the music in the past, we don’t own it, we can’t use it in any other way or re-release it or license without asking someone and just the ownership of the music is very empowering.”

The shift also ushered a change in their writing, recording and touring process. A major label is unlikely to release three albums in one year—too costly, too risky, not enough opportunities for the cash to flow back. But that’s only if three albums were made in the typical fashion a major records and releases records.

For three guys who consider one another family, putting the onus of creation on the gigs themselves frees them from what could otherwise be a long period of time in the studio, followed by a tour in support of that same material. When the focus falls on making the music work on a tight schedule, says Wood, you start to recognize the importance of every single gig. And that makes each show count even more. “We didn’t have a ton of time to get [the material] together, so we just had to go for it,” he explains. “ I think we’ve been working together for a long time so there’s just kind of a natural editing process that happens that we don’t even know about you know that’s just the way we work. We end up with a sound that’s different but still us.”

Their process inspires more than just the three of them, too. When he was working on material for Big Neighborhood, Mike Stern invited the band to jump in on the track “Check One.” He shared a friend and mentor in Bob Moses with the trio, and he says he’d always connected with their “soulful, quirky” vibe. “I sent them some demos,” says Stern. “And right away there was an instant groove. That doesn’t always happen, even with great players. But John is very adventurous…he’s wacky in a cool way. Chris has a great feel and can nail something right away.”

But it was Billy Martin who made Stern really think twice about the music. He felt like he’d screwed up the tune on the first take. “I told him not to play a certain part. I had an idea for a backbeat on the bridge and I wanted to do it over. I mean, man, I hate doing that. I like to do everything live. It’s gotta have that live edge. Still, I said, ‘Billy, I’m so used to it this way. I want to do it over again. And he said he was going to do it,” Stern pauses to laugh. “Then he said, ‘But I really hate to fucking do that.’ And the vibe they put on it was perfect, and more original than my first idea.”

Recently, Medeski, Martin and Wood have also extended their influence beyond the professional jazz world. Celebrating its second anniversary this year in New York’s Catskill Mountains, Camp MMW offers music students—and teachers or pro musicians—a chance to “look inside themselves and hear music a different way,” as Medeski puts it. “People have also been asking us for years, ‘How did you create music like that?’ he says. “We realized maybe there’s something we could offer to people who are interested.”

Martin, who takes the reins as group spokesperson as often as he takes the wheel, jumps in to clarify. “The reason we wanted to get beyond all these basic music lessons is because the level of ability for the students are so varied. We have people who don’t know the first thing about theory or scale or anything and then we have other people who are college music professors. The thing that makes our camp unique is that we’re trying to get beyond techniques of the stuff you learn in your average music camp and talk about other things. Like how you connect music so you can play in your own voice, and fuse to that what you know of technique and improvise.”

Open to applicants 16 and older, the week-long program offers master classes, workshops, discussions and films aimed to improve the creative composition and improvising skills of any musician accepted to the program.

Even as MMW works to get back to their own creative roots, they open up their process to a new generation of musicians—as private music teachers, camp administrators and more widely, as some of music’s most influential artists.

During Jazz Fest in New Orleans, the trio took over a new venue in a public school’s auditorium in the 9th Ward, where blues-soaked bass lines fed acoustic jams that turned into Wurlitzer solos as Logic humbley added textures to a room awash in thick funk. It’s one of many cities that have always embraced the band, owing in part to the homage they pay to the roots of New Orleans music. The Afro-Caribbean second line beats, deep funk and ribbon of blues that runs through the crescent city’s cultural base matches MMW’s approach so perfectly that for many years, they’ve been a Jazz Fest hit.

“I remember being amazed when we first played together at the Knit,” Logic recalls. “They were laying down some hot music but I couldn’t believe when I and saw the audience’s reaction to it. I’ve always though of audience reaction as their fourth member.”

Whether they have a true fourth member or not is ultimately beside the point. Unlike their new material’s unicellular namesake, MMW bases 99% of their success on their ability to function at a high level as a unit. That means having fun together as well as working hard. Asked what inspires them about one another, quips like, “Hey, Billy, get your hand off my leg,” and “I owe these guys a lot of money” get tossed around the van before the truth comes out.

In sum, they see in each other what artists like Stern, Ellis, Hunter, Marco Benevento and dozens of other players who have worked with them over the years are drawn to. Medeski semi-jokes that without Chris Wood’s anchoring role, he’d “probably float off into space,” when describing his bandmate’s solid playing and ability to figure anything out, and explore every new idea to its fullest.

“Billy is the heart of the independent spirit of this band,” Wood says, adding that Martin’s capacity for deep funk and perfect timing are “incredible.” Martin, meanwhile, holds up the “awareness and sensitivity” Medeski brings to the group as a key to the band’s success.
“We are really like a family,” Medeski says. “ Our relationship is very deep. We sew many things together, personally and musically, and being on the road in such close quarters brings us closer. We love to hang out, eat drink and be merry together before every show. We’re living creatively. It’s kind of a remarkable combination of things, and it’s a treat to play with.”

At a recent 10th anniversary party for Ropeadope Records, Medeski’s keys and Martin’s beats provided the house band’s backbone. With Charlie Hunter on guitar, John Ellis on sax and New Orleans’ brass-funk revivalist Big Sam Williams on trombone, the keyed-up, celebratory music showcased a side of this brand of improvised, rock-heavy groove that’s developed its own category for critics. Although MMW’s lasting presence and constant reinvention has finally started to loosen the binds of such categorization, these guys are willing to say the “j” word and tell you exactly what they think.

“We all feel it,” says Medeski in response to a thinly veiled question about their reaction to the term “jamband.” “[It’s a] classic thing, people like to categorize things and there’s people that call this jazz because they’re coming from a rock background and anything instrumental is jazz to them. And there are people who say, ‘oh they’re not jazz.’ It’s perspective- oriented…we’ve given up on these categories.”

The industry—from magazines like Downbeat to festivals and labels in need of easy marketing—is to blame for a lazy and dismissive habit of labeling music based in groove that embraces rock as openly as it does jazz. But a trio that lasts 18 years, survives a music business in crisis and three strong solo careers, and still finds inspiration in one another’s ideas has the potential to constantly shift and reinvent themselves, rendering labels obsolete.

So how does MMW describe what they create?

“Homeless music,” says Martin decisively, from his seat behind the wheel of the van. “We make music that has a lot of roots but it’s not rooted in any one particular genre. Just…homeless.”

And so with a rekindled use of live shows as editing tools, a voracious appetite for new sounds as influences and a teaching environment where voice and creative improvisation come first, Medeski, Martin and Wood’s rootless music is getting back to its roots.

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