Remember back in the late 90’s, when the then-little-known acid jazz trio Medeski, Martin & Wood got together with John Scofield and caused a funk-jazz commotion? Well, MMW got together with another high stature guitarist and caused an experimental rock-jazz upheaval.
Woodstock Sessions, Vol. 2 (out April 15, 2014) documents a meeting with Wilco axeman Nels Cline, and it’s a testament to the malleability of Medeski, Martin & Wood to completely incorporate Cline’s large presence and remain unflinchingly themselves. Taped at Woodstock’s famed Applehead Recording studio in front of a lottery-selected audience of seventy-five, the two acts became a solid one for this artifact of their collaboration lasting a little over an hour.
With both being fixtures in the New York and progressive fusion scenes for so long, it was probably just a matter of time before Cline would sit in with MMW, which happened at The Blue Note club in NYC in 2012. From that point on, it was inevitable that a record would be made together.
The session/concert hybrid is optimal for these improvisation-minded gentlemen, and they lunged ahead making music on the fly for nearly two hours, leaving it to the engineers to edit and mix the performance down to its finished length and broken out into nine tracks. The temporary quartet delves into many areas of outlier music, and they’re all areas well within the comfort zones of both Cline and MMW: electronic minimalism, noise rock, free jazz and far-out funk.
Probably thanks to some sympathetic editing, the songs flow right in spite of their weirdness. The brief opener “Doors of Deception” finds Cline and Medeski combining their sound sculpting skills into a wonderfully ghostly whole, setting the stage for the extended mindfuck “Bonjour Beze.” Here, Medeski noodles around a chord on a medieval sounding organ while Cline lays down lizard lines on the other side. Wood’s hypnotic bass figure provides the opening for Martin to jump in with a James Brown beat. The song has a sampled/looped feel, going from groove to disorder in an orderly fashion.
That sets the stage for some of the other seven songs, whereby the four engage in a ritual of feeling out the others until the Wood/Martin rhythm section locate a groove and the others jump in and put their mark on it. “Mezcal” is excepted, because Wood kicks things off with a meaty, thrumming bass line tracked by Martin’s deep grooving that gives Cline a prime platform to unleash guitar wickedness. When Cline goes off the rails, so does Martin. It gets wild, alright, but everyone remains locked in sync.
Medeski and Cline are just as attuned to each other as Wood and Martin are. When Cline’s one-of-a-kind wah-wah is put to use for the psychedelic Meters frolic “Jaed,” Medeski responds with similarly-toned electric piano weirdness. The song itself is remindful of MMW’s emergent 90’s period but Cline’s input leaves the impression that he was in the band back then, too. At one point of “Arm & Leg,” Medeski’s keyboard sounds like a guitar — specifically, like Cline’s guitar — and the two quietly trade licks. They weave soft, sparkling textures together during “Cinders,” taking cues from Miles Davis’ “In A Silent Way.”
Cline does more than merely fit in, though, and anyone looking for him to unload will find plenty to like in his shrill shredding the highlights “Looters,” and the driving rock of “Arm & Leg.”
The success of Medeski, Martin & Wood’s collaborations with Scofield lies in their ability to meet in the middle. MMW and Nels Cline mostly stay in place and nonetheless fit together like hand in glove. Woodstock Sessions, Vol. 2 ranks up there with the best that the trio has made in recent years. And Cline? Let’s see how this stacks up against his new Nels Cline Singers album coming forth later this month. Keep it tuned right here for the lowdown.
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