Jazz guitarist John Scofield and the funkfirm of Medeski, Martin and Wood have been bosom buddies for a while now. The popular jazz trio served as Scofield’s backing band for his 1997 album A Go Go and then integrated him into their own collective for Out Louder nine years later. Simply naming themselves Medeski, Scofield, Martin and Wood, they hit the road in support of Out Louder resulting in this double live document, MSMW Live: In Case the World Changes Its Mind. A Go Go proved that MM&W could provide more than competent back up to a slew of Scofield originals. Out Louder proved that John Scofield himself could integrate himself into an already-established trio without much effort. So all that’s left to answer is, are they a good live act? Yes.
If you are like me, you miss the days of when a live album from a pop/rock group could really kick out the jams and differentiate itself, sometimes wildly so, from the songs’ studio counterparts. Nowadays when you catch a big name act in concert, their live set sounds too much like their latest CD to warrant a ticket purchase, let alone the pressing of a live album. For the most part, MSMW Live: In Case the World Changes Its Mind rises to the challenge of setting itself apart from the four songs that come from A Go Go and the seven that come from Out Louder. The instruments are miced a little hotter, the performances freer and the audience is plenty appreciative. The quartet gets a warm welcome just for playing a few opening bars for “A Go Go”, a song that functions as a pretty good indicator of what this album will be like.
The refreshing thing about tag teaming with Medeski, Martin & Wood is that it breaks John Scofield out of the predictable jazz guitar mold. In this setting, his electric guitar gets in touch with its far more primal roots than anything resembling hard bop. This is Scofield in full on blues-rock mode with a strong emphasis on the latter. John Medeski’s organ sometimes acts like a second guitar by playing thickly stacked chords through some old fashioned tube distortion. Chris Wood and Billy Martin, ever one of the sturdiest rhythm sections in any genre, go wherever the two Johns take them without the slightest misstep.
If “A Go Go” is a good start and if second track “Deadzy” is an obligation to kick out the moody experimentation early, then the party really gets started on “What Now”. This slice of brisk 12/8 funk jazz gets things cooking so hot that it’s truly a wonder that the audience doesn’t give the band more props at the end of Medeski and Scofield’s bloodletting solos. For better or worse, the crowd here is a sucker for gimmicks. Witness Chris Wood’s extended introduction to “Cachaça”; some bending of the notes here and a slapping of the neck there and everyone in attendance meows with delight.
Their good cheer is kind of wasted on a cover of the hymn “Amazing Grace”, a standard so tired that I don’t really want to go into why. Funk takes a backseat to gospel while still trying to derive the fun from a song that been played probably a trillion times too many. To register this as a complaint is not only slight but a misrepresentation of the album. Do John Scofield and Medeski, Martin & Wood reinvent the wheel when they are together? No, not really. If not exactly brave, their songs are a more aerodynamic take on their jam sessions. Do they make their songs better in a live setting? Yes; cursory sample listening to “Hanuman” and “What Now” should be enough to convince you that this foursome is a different animal when it hits the stage. All told, this is a damn fine package and it is likely even better in person.