Most bands tend to constrict themselves by setting up parameters or sticking to a formula within which they operate, in order to create a sort of trademark sound. Medeski, Martin & Wood don’t roll like that and haven’t at least since The Dropper. They might pull from the same inspirations ranging from chamber music to whack jazz, but their sources for inspiration are almost limitless, and they use a different recipe nearly each time out. And yet, they still have a trademark sound; one that’s jam-my, groovy and above all, virtuosic.
During a 2007 tour, the recipe consisted of holding all plugged in keyboards and adding maybe just a pinch of electric bass; the rest of the ingredients were a heavy dose of acoustic. Five years later, we finally get a souvenir of their first-ever acoustic series of concerts, entitled Free Magic, a collection of five mostly recycled songs all performed as extended forms.
John Medeski swapping out a Hammond B-3 for a Steinway and Chris Wood sticking primarily with a stand-up bass might make one think the trio’s been reduced to playing Bill Evans or Oscar Peterson styled-jazz, but they don’t even play like the Bad Plus. Remember, this is a band that sets no parameters on themselves. That means that Chris Martin doesn’t even have to play drums; he’s quietly percolating on a balaphone (a type of African xylophone) for the long intro of “Doppler” while Medeski is doubling up on toy piano and melodica and Wood occasionally scrapes on his bass with a bow. Eventually they do settle into a low-note second-line groove after Martin moves in behind his kit and Medeski his Steinway.
“Blues For Another Day” is tumultuous for the first four minutes, like a Cecil Taylor song, before shifting into some aching, funky blues. “Free Magic/Ballad In C Minor, ‘Vergessene Seelen'” goes even further outside, as all three take lengthy expeditions into odd sounds and timbres; bowed bass, turned metal percussion and Medeski’s bizarre detuned upright piano create sonorities odder than most anything coming from electronically enabled instruments. That whacked-out piano alongside Wood’s lead electric bass creates a spooky noise that’s also exotic and even logical. “Where’s Sly” is a remake from a song from their second album, but this time they take more liberties with the melody, capped by Martin’s a-bit-too-long drum solo. “Nostalgia In Times Square/Angel Race” comes across as the Ramsey Lewis Trio of the 60s meets Mardi Gras, which isn’t how most Charles Mingus/Sun Ra mash ups are described, but in MMW’s hands, anything can happen with anyone’s songs.
The unplugged challenge wasn’t that much of a challenge to Medeski, Martin and Wood because they’ve always taken on the difficult stuff. Not playing as loud made it easier for each player to hear the others and thus react better than what might have occurred in an electric setting. The big takeaway from Free Magic is that the three had just as much interesting to say musically without electrified instruments. It’s not all that surprising that they do, really. But now, we finally get to hear that.
Free Magic will be released September 25 by Medeski, Martin & Wood’s won Indirecto Records.
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Here’s a look back at our past thoughts on other MMW-related recordings. Click through the titles for complete reviews …
Billy Martin/John Medeski – Mago (2007): Medeski’s organ bass pedals fill the void just fine. Mago further proof that the parts of MMW are just as great as the whole.
Medeski, Martin & Wood – Let’s Go Everywhere (2008): Just as Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown television specials introduced generations of kids to straight jazz, MMW now seeks to expose them to the joys of acid jazz. The music might sound just a little too grown up for tots in spots, but it’s probably never too early to demonstrate good grooves and this record’s got a lot more of those than any other record directed at the kindergarten crowd. And Mom and Dad can dig it just as much as their kids.
The Wood Brothers – Loaded (2008): Two brothers from opposite ends of the musical spectrum getting together to play music that’s a little different from what either is known for playing could get by one time as a novelty. Chris and Oliver Wood evidently don’t see themselves that way, though. Recording their second album in just over two years and revealing some real growth along the way shows that these guys mean business.
Medeski, Martin & Wood – Radiolarians 1 (2008): Radiolarians 1 is the first of a planned trilogy of records by the keyboard-bass-drums trio that’s difficult to categorize. This CD does nothing to make them easier to pigeon-hole, either.
Medeski, Martin & Wood – Radiolarians II (2009): As with Part 1, Radiolarians II has many of the threesome’s astonishing range, sharp musicianship and unpredictability on display; it’s atypical nature makes it a typical MMW album, if you know what I mean. That said, there’s a distinction that sets II apart from I: it’s less “jammy” and more a collection of distinct, memorable songs. The tightness translates to increased listenability but the chops don’t get the short shrift, either.
Billy Martin & Wil Blades Duo – Shimmy (2012): B-3 specialist Blades gives Billy Martin plenty of room to do his thing and together they’ve found a symbiosis that won’t threaten MMW, but provides Martin a perfect diversion from that and Blades another premier funky timekeeper to jam with. Listeners get to benefit from the hip shaking, foot stomping noise they make.
Spectrum Road – Spectrum Road (2012): Fusion jazz is a music form where there’s been very little out there truly fresh and new for a long while. Sometimes you’ve got to go all the way back before you can more forward again. Spectrum Road reintroduces the limitless possibilities that were abundant at the beginning, when Williams and his fearless Lifetime band were racing across the frontier and leaving most everyone behind.