Improv trio tours West Coast acoustic style
23 Apr 2013: The Great American Music Hall San Francisco, CA
The early 21st century has been a thriving time for the jamrock/improvisational music scene. Fans can look on sites like Jambase.com and several others and find improvisational acts playing around the country every week. But things weren’t always this way, for back in the early ‘90s there were only a handful of such acts touring nationally. Medeski, Martin and Wood are one of the acts that helped to blaze the trail for the jam scene, back when it was unclear that such a path would lead anywhere.
It’s been a fruitful road though as MMW have been bringing their jazzy jams and spirit of musical adventure to the people for over two decades now. They’ve influenced many of the bands that followed in one way or another, making an incalculable impact. And while most jam rock acts are guitar-driven, MMW has long demonstrated how a bassist, drummer and keyboardist can impact the sonic landscape with their creativity.
You can’t just call MMW a jazz trio though because they incorporate elements of funk, blues, rock and avant garde art noise into their unique mix. Chris Wood’s hard-driving bass, Billy Martin’s eclectic percussion and John Medeski’s exploratory keyboards coalesce to create a sound that is often greater than the sum of the parts. Such a formula is often emulated, but rarely duplicated as it takes ace musicians with serious dedication to the craft to pull it off with such skill.
“Billy didn’t play jazz, but he improvised like a jazz player. It shifted things for me – he wouldn’t necessarily start swinging when I played a walking bass line. He brought the eighth-note feel that makes hip-hop and Brazilian beats so compatible with jazz, and he didn’t play like a drum machine; he was always playing interactively,” says Wood at the band’s website, explaining a significant part of what enables the band to improv in such an adventurous manner.
“You need to be in touch with that feeling you had as a child when you listened to sound,” adds Medeski. “Everything going on around you is music. When you’re in touch with that, you can play from that deep place more easily – you can create music with real freedom and openness.”
Such a pursuit of musical freedom is never sated, as the quest for those ecstatic moments where it all comes together becomes a lifestyle unto itself. And so MMW finds themselves on a West Coast acoustic spring tour, celebrating their archival live album Free Magic, a document of the band’s first acoustic tour in 2007. San Francisco’s historic Great American Music Hall is a fabulous venue for a two-night stand, with the trio playing night two here on Wednesday evening. The place just has an old school classy vibe, and they’ve jazz clubbed it up a bit here with tables on the floor for those who want to dine beforehand. But then there’s still a pack of people behind the tables ready to get a groove on.
The first set focuses on the spacier free jazz improv vibe that appeals more to the serious jazz aficionados. The trio takes their time, dabbling with a variety of sounds and jazzy explorations that seem aimed more at the seated patrons. There’s some great avant garde interplay appropriate for a tour emphasizing Free Magic, with the trio taking time to explore their jazzy roots. But mid-way through the set, Wood seizes control with a more infectious bass line that connects with the standing crowd in the back. Martin seizes on the groove by laying down a danceable beat, Medeski jumps in with some funky keys and the band starts cooking. The set ends after about 45 minutes and anticipation for a big second set lingers in the air.
The band sets the tone for the second set by opening at a peak level with their high-energy take on Duke Ellington’s classic “Blue Pepper”. Chris Wood takes charge with a fat walking bassline that Martin’s drums dance around, while Medeski throws down some piano that recalls some of Miles Davis’ fusion sounds from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. The band is off to the races with a fresh funky sound that transforms the jazz standard into a funky dance party that has everyone into the groove.
A similar exploration on Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” is another crowd-pleaser, with the crowd hooting and hollering in appreciation. Medeski’s funky piano work is at the fore here, with the complementary way the trio plays around each other again at a master level. This funkier energy infuses the entire set. A later jam gets into a sublime groove with a deep bassline by Wood and some melodic piano by Medeski that finds the trio in a space recalling one of Phish’s classic “hose” jams, where the melody just seems to flow out into the crowd bringing everyone into a collective groove.
The trio finishes off the night right by throwing down a huge encore jam on “Suspicious Minds”, the classic tune popularized by Elvis Presley. It’s always great to hear a fresh arrangement on an old classic, something MMW does as well as anyone. The trio charge the tune with new life here as Wood and Martin lay down a deep groove for Medeski to play over. They take it down in the middle for a jazzy piano solo that could end the show, but then they bring it back to the top for another round of the big dance groove, taking the audience on a true journey. Elvis probably never dreamed the song could jam out like this, and it’s another testament to MMW’s skill at teaching an old dog new tricks.