Someone here is on something, and let me tell you, the Drug Czar is gonna have a hard time of it if acid-droppin’, joint-smokin’, ecstasy-takin’ kids can point to this and say “see, drugs aren’t so bad for you after all”.
If you’ve been out of the loop for a while, this record will throw you. See the name Medeski Martin and Wood and you think groove-heavy organ jams. See the Blue Note imprint on the back cover and you think of classic soul-jazz sides. See song titles like the double entendre “We Are Rolling”, “Philly Cheese Blunt” and “The Dropper”, and you’ll think you stumbled across the latest from Cypress Hill or Tricky.
But what you get on The Dropper is music that at times sounds like the Beastie Boys at their most funked-out, soul-deep instrumental best, and at others like the out-there stylings of the stable of AUM Fidelity Records.
At its best, The Dropper is a druggy blast that meshes a loose-limbed euphoria with a studied, deep-groove intensity. It’s a record that takes the organ-based trio format as far as it can go, then somehow finds a way to go further. It’s the group’s eighth album, and continues the band’s onward and upward mentality (derailed briefly by Tonic, this year’s acoustic live album).
The band is John Medeski on keyboards, Billy Martin on drums and Chris Wood on bass. These guys are the quintessential über-talented jazzbos, playing with alt-rockers like Beck, jamming at the Newport Jazz Festival, rocking with Jon Scofield or noodling through lengthy jams that would make Phish go all slack-jawed.
Early on the band’s music was pretty standard organ trio, plenty funky but not exactly at the vanguard of sound. But on their past few discs, most notably their Blue Note debut Combustication, the three have experimented with noise, electronics and turntable scratching. The trio is aided here, as on Combustication, by co-producer and noted by hip-hop engineer Scotty Hard. Hard’s hands are felt in the beats, which wouldn’t sound bad with some Beastie-esque rap over top.
The experimentation reaches its apex on The Dropper. The album starts with random bursts of noise on “We Are Rolling”, slides into a groove on “Big Time”, and hits full throttle on “Felic”. There, the trio sets up a nice base for the wildly searching solos of Sun Ra Arkestra saxophonist Marshall Allen.
That leads into “Partido Alto”, a strong groove that serves as a good example of why this trio is so good. Martin’s drums seem clearly to be the star. He isn’t just keeping the beat here, his busy but never over-bearing drums propel the song, often capturing your attention to the exclusion of the other two instruments. But Medeski’s organ is no slouch, as the keyboard player does a whole lot with a little. He jams out a fistful of tossed off bleats that carry the melody across the bridge. His piano then returns to give the tune a bit of organic grounding. All the while, Wood’s bass is playing in and around the beat, keeping time with Martin for a while here, carrying the melody there. No one instrument overwhelms the others, though each is pushed to the fore at various times throughout the song.
The record then heads into the three songs that serve as the heart of the disc. Cuban guitarist Marc Ribot fleshes out MMW’s sound in fine fashion on these tunes. His presence is so strong on “Note Bleu”, itself one of the most well-written songs on the album, that it makes one wish the band would add another surname to its moniker. His playing is tasteful, not flashy, and it adds texture to the tunes rather than serve as a focal point.
Later the three are joined by jazz violinist Charlie Burnham and the alt-rock string section of violinist Joan Wasser (Those Bastard Souls) and cellist Jane Scarpantoni (Bob Mould et al). These tracks are more fleshed out, leaving Medeski and Wood particularly to play around with the melody rather than to provide the entire guts of the songs.
Anyone looking for a dose of Big John Patton/Jimmy Smith like organ jamming should look elsewhere (if not in MMW’s back catalog). This album is about pushing the envelope and polishing a groove. This seems only tangentially linked to jazz—it’s more steeped in hip-hop, techno, avant noise, etc…—but through it all this is jazz, and the link is in beat. Somewhere buried—sometimes deeply—in the dense soundscape, is a swinging groove.
The Dropper‘s cover shows a distorted black and white photograph of the band, the member’s faces stretched and squished to the point of being nearly unrecognizable. That’s a fitting image for this music. It’s jazz to be sure, but you have to listen carefully to hear it.