Once the sole domain of rabidly devoted fans, funk-fusion was at one time regarded as the bastard stepchild of the jazz genre, eschewed by most mainstream audiences as being too avant-garde, too experimental, and just too weird. While it’s not all that hard to believe that the progressive pulse of this style of jazz has captured the attention of the tie-dyed jamband set, it is a little hard to believe that this incredibly loyal audience also manages to find a dance groove in there somewhere. But with keyboardist John Medeski, drummer/percussionist Billy Martin and bassist Chris Wood’s recent appearance at Liberty Hall in Lawrence, Kansas, it was hard not to start shaking a leg as the jazz/funk trio laid down nearly two full sets of ambient explorations, straight-edged jazz and hard-driving funk.
14 May 2002: Liberty Hall Lawrence, Kansas
At times, however, even a loyal and educated audience has its limits. Most of the first set consisted of material off their latest Blue Note release, Uninvisible, including a heavy rolling version of “Pappy Check” as well as the album’s title cut. Precariously shifting between freeform soundscapes and straight blues-funk, the trio was insistent on playing their kind of show instead of playing solely to the audience’s whims, begging the question of whether or not most of those in attendance were there for the music or for the scene. Ever conscious of the room’s vibe, the trio would effortlessly throw off a tight groove or fatback drumbeat on occasion to keep the music moving forward and pull the crowd back to their side.
The first set closer was the reward for those patient enough to not cut out early for a smoke, a loosely loping rendition of the Thelonious Monk tune “Bemsha Swing” that slowly morphed into a meditation on Bob Marley’s “Lively Up Yourself”. A tried and true crowd pleaser to be sure and a trick that’s been in the band’s repertoire for a while, but the buildup of expectation gave this night’s version a fresh sense of energy and an optimistic outlook to the second set.
While the first set of the evening was an amazing exploration of harmony and colors, the second set concentrated on rhythm. Opening with Wood on his McCartney-style Hofner bass, the trio immediately launched into a ten-minute hard-edged dance funk groove that finally satiated the crowd’s need to boogie. Solo instrumental turns by Medeski and Martin later on in the set (Wood having taken his turn earlier in the evening) provided the opportunity to examine the incredible technique these players possess: Medeski attacking the keys with the slap and stab fury of a percussionist while Martin’s bottomless toybox of percussion instruments was on constant display.
A long night, though, is still a long night and towards the end of the second set, the trio showed signs of wearing down amidst a few technical complications. A grand flourish of a finish was needed and provided thanks to a one-two punch of Jimi Hendrix covers, “Fire” and “Crosstown Traffic”. The evenings encore, a wickedly playful version of “I Wanna Ride You” from Uninvisible found the three slowing dancing their way to the edge of the stage at the end, unplugged, with Medeski playing a pocket-sized melodica, Martin on a talking drum and Wood on his acoustic upright, a nod at the notion that the noise is fun but the music is still at the heart of the matter . . . and really all that matters.