[26 July 2006]
Jazz is ever finding ways to hook up with popular music, for better or worse. Some will note that jazz once was popular music (during “the swing era”), but it might be more fair to say that between 1935 and 1955, jazz was simply much more successful in wedding itself to or helping to form the pop sounds of the day. Either way, today the link between jazz and popular music has shattered some—Norah Jones can claim some jazz heritage as a pop songstress and various washed up pop stars will turn to jazz when their real career fails, but very few artists seriously try to find popularity in their improvised art.
Medeski Martin & Wood is the intriguing exception.
After starting as an acoustic jazz trio (piano, bass, and drums) with “downtown” or avant-garde leanings in 1991, the group soon mutated into an organ trio calling on the New Orleans funk of the Meters, Jimmy Smith Back at the Chicken Shack jazz, and fusiony psychedelia in equal measures. It was probably no surprise, then, that their break would come from playing with and opening for the funky jam band Phish in 1995. Neither could it have been surprising that they would eventually find a place at Blue Note Records—the legendary home to many classic boogaloo and organ trio sounds in the 1960s. After playing as the rhythm section on the superb Jon Scofield album A Go Go (1997 on Blue Note), the trio signed to the label themselves.
Before the music on this collection, MMW recorded a series of impressive albums for Gramavision, where they took adventurous stabs at playing Ellington or combining Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” with Marley’s “Lively Up Yourself”. Supplementing the trio with the relatively conventional additions of a horn section or Marc Ribot’s guitar, MMW sounded like a jazz group of bold, modern, and witty taste. In concert, they were already playing long improvisations, whirling crowds into a psychedelic fervor that the band may have drawn from Sun Ra or Coltrane but that was pure Jerry Garcia to the fans.
And so, in their Blue Note albums MMW continued to maintain this fluid connection with commerce—performing intriguingly updated funk-jazz with an ear for hip-hop and “downtown” jazz while acquitting themselves as jam-banders for the concertgoing masses. The results in the Blue Note studios are oddly middling and gimmicky when listened to in retrospect. There is less outright groove than there is sonic goof-off-ery.
“Off the Table”, from 2001’s Uninvisible ,starts with a theatrical organ over electronic fizzes and blurcks from DJ Olive, but once the live-instrument groove is established, it is as accompaniment for a sample of a ping-pong game. The Meters may groove, Nina Rota may create atmosphere, but MMW is in a suburban basement playing polyrhythm with some table tennis players. This is the kind of tongue-in-cheek art that dominates the Note Bleu collection. “Partido Alto” from 2000’s The Dropper collages the funk like a sonic quilt before finally letting John Medeski’s organ get down to some B3 melody. It’s not that a tune like this doesn’t groove, but it does so only reluctantly, seeming to prefer different kinds of aural gamesmanship to just playing. There are some talking drums, samples of scale-descending voices, drunken acoustic piano, then a long fade-out that atmospherically suggests a toy piano down the hall. “Sugar Craft”, a concert staple, puts the B3 sound up front, but DJ Logic—who can’t really lock the band any tighter than the connection between Chris Wood’s electric bass and Billy Martin’s N’awlins-y drumming—sprinkles it all with so much quirky sound that the track comes off like the soundtrack to a movie about ADHD. Mr. Martin’s remix of “Hey-Hee-Hi-Ho” has the same effect, giving you a guided tour of a really fun but schizy sonic junkshop.
In other spots, you can certainly hear why the band is so much fun in concert. “I Wanna Ride You” is a stop-start boogaloo that features a cheap electric organ sound and some glorious harmonies on the relief sections. “Note Bleu” is a dirty, minor-key blues that honestly does update their great label predecessors, slipping into a rhapsodic bridge without ever seeming sweet or predictable. “Pappy Check” is quick but nicely integrates short scratch-breaks and guitar into an organ-bass groove. “Mami Gato” (from the last Blue Note album, 2003’s End of the World Party) does a keen job of combining acoustic groove (Wood on upright and Medeski on grand) with various electro-atmospherics. When Billy Martin starts playing complex double-time second-line figures on his cymbals at the end, you’d think that Elvin Jones had snuck into Mardi Gras somehow.
The best of the Blue Note material, however, harkens back to the early MMW formula. “Queen Bee” brings back Marc Ribot for funky wah sounds under the organ melody, then a more rocking climax as the tune breaks into the clearing. “Uninvisible” builds on a stuttering groove that sounds sampled but isn’t, then mixes in a beefy horn line as counterpoint to the organ melody. “Hey Joe” is an all-acoustic throwback from the live album Tonic, recorded at the downtown NY club where so much great and adventurous avant-garde jazz has been made in the last ten years. “Hey Joe” is as delicate as it is blues-drenched, if hardly danceable. It may not be the music that won over Trey Anastasio in 1995, but it sure rips your heart out here.
This collection is notable (and vital to MMW fans who already own all the albums) for some unreleased tracks and a DVD of the band doing its thing in concert. “Whiny Bitches” is a track from the End of the World sessions that allows Medeski to buzz and noodle on a ‘70s-sounding synth over a strange (but severely funky) time signature. Sounding a bit like a fusion track from another era, the tune is a welcome link to yet another MMW influence. “The Builder” (apparently an outtake from The Dropper) lays down an offbeat bed of groove for a series of horn honks and squeals before the keyboard melody and organ solo take over. “Toy Dancing” (2003) is a more classic organ and Wurlitzer workout for Medeski—the band at its best, I suppose—but it’s hard to know how it adds to their legacy in the slightest.
The real value-add here is the DVD, which gives you an approximation of what all the fuss has been about. In concert, MMW are something fun and nutty—three unremarkably dull-looking white guys conjuring up the ghosts of their groove merchant heroes for the swirling masses, yet always lacing the butt-shaking mixture with sly bits of out-harmony, avant licks, and slippery humor. The DVD gives you two concert excerpts— outdoor at the Newport Jazz Festival and in a tent at the Texaco Jazz Festival—as well as two documentaries on the band and three music videos. The videos are abstract widdley-woo hardly worth watching, but the documentaries and concert footage give you the chance to mainline what makes MMW such a treat. Seeing John Medeski WHAP his clavinet with karate chops, watching Chris Wood’s fingers time each bass thump to lock into Billy’s kick, feeling Mr. Martin’s four-limbed groove gather like a tornado—these are the reasons that MMW has achieved both popular and artistic success. In one of the documentaries, the band discusses (and we watch them) recording in the studio. The trick, they explain, is to capture through studio overdubs the looseness and spontaneity of a show.
Unfortunately, Note Bleu demonstrates just how tricky that process really is, particularly when you are trying to take a fairly simple concept—a funky organ trio—and stretch it beyond your earlier defining success on another record label. MMW may have plenty more tricks up its sleeve, but this anthology suggests that most of them will be generated in a local concert hall.
Medeski, Martin & Wood - Uninvisible