Jazz has had an uneasy relationship with fame—with success—for a long time now. Back in the 1930s and 1940s, jazz really was the popular music of the US. Benny Goodman really was Jay-Z, and maybe Duke Ellington was… Wilco? But once rock swept in (and certainly by the late 1960s), when a jazz musician reached for genuine commercial success, that success was met with suspicion that he or she was selling out, watering down the art for commerce.
And, often enough, it was true.
In the new millennium, the idea of a jazz musician getting really “big” has shifted, particularly since success in the music business no longer means continual radio play or album sales. Today, there are corners of the music world where bands could not be any bigger even though their records never reach FM broadcast. Like Medeski Martin & Wood—a trio of improvising instrumentalists who regularly sell out rock theaters and play to a crowd of young people with no particular interest in, say, Wayne Shorter. Medeski Martin & Wood are stars of a sort in the jam band world.
This release, Woodstock Sessions Vol. 2, a live collaboration with Wilco guitarist (and adventurous improviser) Nels Cline, clearly shows that Medeski Martin & Wood has not let fame water down their approach. The glorious thing about these musicians—and about this recording—is that it demonstrates a certain oblivion to making music that’s “easy” to listen to, even though it exploits so many of the elements of music that have brought Medeski Martin & Wood and Cline a big audience.
Not that Woodstock Sessions Vol. 2 is going to be a big seller among Wilco or Medeski Martin & Wood fans. But it’s honest, killer music that comes right out of these guys’ strengths, just pushed more toward the edge of noise and experiment. It still has groove and passion, drive and daring. Of course.
The set-up for this record is interesting: Medeski Martin & Wood and Cline had played together two years earlier at The Blue Note in New York, and for the reprise they chose Applehead Studios in Woodstock, NY. But they brought in 75 audience members to watch the live recording session. So, what happens here is captured with impeccable sound yet feels like a risk, a tightrope walk of a sort.
It starts with a distorted fanfare for overdriven organ and drums. “Doors of Deception” quickly moves into a more mysterious space, however: no tempo, atmospheric clicks and clacks, quiet sweeps of sound that then ease us into the next song, “Bonjour Beze”. It’s hard to know exactly where one player stops and another starts for quite a while, but eventually a set of licks emerge from the mist of sound—a repeating low figure on guitar, a thrilling syncopation on toms and snare, a bass line, and what seems like a message from another galaxy on organ. It seems off to call this “free jazz”, even as this tune breaks down and goes in another tempo-less direction, unrestricted by a set harmonic pattern. Instead it is a collage or a set of improvised gestures. Indeed, it is not at all clear how much (if any) of this music was composed ahead of time. It feels that loose and organic.
Even a performance that is as structured as “Mezcal” seems to grow from a seedling. This tune starts as a quick, fusion lick on guitar, but soon the whole band is building up a head of steam over which Cline takes off on a volcanic rock-style solo. The coda to the song, however, is just as interesting—an interlude of relative quiet after the funked-out bass line and ripping drums give way to more free time. The next chapter, “Les Blank”, starts by moving slowly between two chords. Medeski dials up a soft, whistling tone on B3 and assays the interesting areas of this gentle sway. But the groove eventually morphs into something more aggressive, with Wood’s electric bass moving all around as Cline scratches out a real funk feeling. This section of the concert feels utterly likely to please an audience, as Cline rides the wave of this amazing trio like a snowboarder flying off a launch. But you can’t be surprised that the tune ramps down after a while into a slow and haunting groove that is punctuated by a set of strange sounds (is it the acoustic bass or the organ that sounds like a bass clarinet here? how does Medeski get that weird twisting sound from the keys? how delicious is it when Billy Martin breaks the steady groove and seems to purposely stumble, tumble, then catch the groove again?).
This is the pattern of this concert—it gives you what you might like but then it dares you to listen more closely. The easy funk fun of “Jade” gives way to the exploratory intrigue of “Looters”. “Conebranch” is a tone poem of sorts, moody and gentle and echoing, then “Arm & Leg” crackles with noise and distortion and rumble. The closer, “Cinders”, brings things to a stately but ambiguous ending. Cline plays a searching melody reminiscent of the opening of Miles Davis’s “In a Silent Way”, and the trio flows below him, working as a single unit always. Medeski’s organ tone is completely unique, buzzing and otherworldly. The band lifts Cline up and then slowly allows the song to disintegrate around them, slowly collapsing the performance into a tempo-less, aharmonic drizzle of plucked-rung-stippled notes. Like the slowly falling sparks of a certain kind of firework, this concert glimmers into settled darkness.
Listening to Woodstock Sessions a second time, you can’t say that any one player steals the show. Cline burns and soars in places, but he is just as likely to shift into the texture and fabric of the band. Medeski is everywhere at once, inventive and supportive both. Martin sets the groove as necessary but works just as beautifully as a colorist and provocateur. And Wood is the most selfless of all—present when you need him but often so integral that he’s hard to find in the mix. And this is what makes the session work. What might have been a “supergroup” of some kind turns out to be merely a true group that is “super” because there is so little grandstanding.
Best of all, Woodstock Sessions Vol. 2 features a group of musicians who could easily play to the audiences that are so utterly ready to love them. Instead, they play for themselves, for the passion they have for their art. It’s not a record to alienate fans, but it’s a record to challenge fans and win them over to stretches beyond their comfort zone. A thrill, a dare, a terrific record.