[28 September 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Medeski, Martin & Wood’s first album Notes from the Underground turns twenty this year. To commemorate the occasion, the jazz trio will hit the road for an acoustic tour in support of an acoustic live album they recorded in 2007, Free Magic. Hey, Medeski, Martin & Wood were never ones to coast on the reissues of past albums and nostalgia tours. This was the same band that made a children’s album, a collection of Masada covers, and three new albums of material written on the road in the span of two calendar years, so don’t expect anything less idiosyncratic.
The acoustic artistry of Medeski, Martin & Wood guarantees a different outcome from the vamp-you-to-the-floor vibe of the All Things Considered staple “Bubblehouse”. You can’t say that they turn into a different band when John Medeski trades his organ for a piano while Wood picks up his upright and Martin pays more attention to his timbre and volume, but you can say that their sources of inspiration are thrown into a different light. Notes from the Underground and the 2000 live album Tonic gave us glimpses of a piano trio that had more to do with Jaki Byard and Sun Ra than Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson. Another point of reference, one pointed out by Medeski himself, is Ahmad Jamal. All three members admit that the hard-hitting energy of their usual electric live sets sometimes overshadow these other skills, and Free Magic finds the free-flowing energy being channeled in more subtle ways.
You can tell right off the bat with “Doppler”, a song taken from the 20 collection and used for the opening number. Martin keeps time with a balaphone while Medeski plays the melodica and a toy piano simultaneously. Chris Wood’s bowing bass is probably the least surprising thing here, which is certainly saying something. As the song chugs along into more familiar territory, we find the funky fusion brought forth in other ways, ones that emphasize groove and melody. But that doesn’t really prepare you for “Free Magic/Ballade in C Minor, ‘Vergessene Seelen’”, a medley that can conjure a snake out of its basket (if it had ears). You can almost see the incense creeping through the air as Medeski plays his arabesque scales on his prepared piano while Wood shivers his cymbals.
This is the Free Magic at play. The rest of the album shows that Medeski, Martin & Wood still have one foot planted in more recognizable forms of jazz. “Blues for Another Day” and “Where’s Sly?” capture that puzzling paradox of how such lazy-sounding music can come across as so intense and focused. The covers are saved for last; a medley of Charles Mingus and Sun Ra on “Nostalgia in Times Square/Angel Race”. This is Medeski, Martin & Wood at their loosest on Free Magic. It makes for a fun, boppy finish to what is, honestly speaking, one of Medeski, Martin & Wood’s nicer albums. The experimentation summoned by these three comes from more than twenty years of experience, and it pays off just as handsomely as anything in their back catalog. In other words, free expression brought magic. Catch it.