There are those who imitate and emulate and then there are those that have the elusive gift to actually innovate. Belonging to the latter, the trance jazz/funk trio Medeski, Martin and Wood continues to lead the way with their all-encompassing embrace of an ever-expanding list of influences as well as their innate ability to move, groove, morph and mix with reckless abandon. As their ninth release in 11 years (not counting their numerous individual side projects and collaborations), Uninvisible represents a clear indication of what they have accomplished in that time and an obvious understanding of what they are evolving into.
Augmenting the instrumental prowess of keyboardist John Medeski, drummer and percussionist Billy Martin and bassist Chris Wood are a host of co-conspirators, a funky stew of DJs, horn players, percussionists and even Col. Bruce Hampton. The result is a slew of sonic snapshots and sound collages, set to driving fatback drumbeats and intensely mesmerizing basslines. Picking up where their 2000 release The Dropper left off and echoing the freeform explorations of their defining 1996 effort Shack Man, Uninvisible falls right in step with these two then takes off running.
The groaning ambient introduction of the disc’s opening title track is the artistic invocation, a prelude of shapelessness that is quickly put into a perspective of time by Wood’s bubbly thumping bassline and the fatback beat of Martin’s dangerously loose snare. Yet it’s in Medeski’s stabbing and staggering organ lines where “Uninvisible” and so many other of the disc’s 14 tracks find their legs. From the Lee Morgan-esque, orange-shag-carpet funk of “I Wanna Ride You” to the moody, B-movie horror film organ intro to “Off the Table”, Medeski is comfortable balancing between leading the charge and laying down the harmonic foundation for the group’s ambitious arrangements. Given their penchant for free-wheeling freeform explorations onstage, the group struts from track to track with purpose, offering evidence of a clear, concise and carefully crafted approach to each composition. Even in their more abstract moments, like the trancelike dreaminess of “Retirement Song” and the introspectively spacey “Nocturnal Transmission”, they command attention and and refuse to relinquish it.
With a heightened sense of familiarity as to what the studio has to offer, the trio makes it another important factor in shaping the music, moving beyond harmony and rhythm into the often-ignored realm of sonority. It’s a sure sign of not only their comfort with each other’s tendencies and tastes as musicians but also their ability to hear their work as an organic whole and not just in terms of their own individual efforts. The addition of uncommon colors then becomes natural, most notable with the turntables in “Pappy Check” and “First Time Long Time” that give these tracks and others an even more credible urban feel.
While progressive jazz once had a quietly loyal but incredibly small following, MMW has helped to bring it to a whole new audience, one devoid of black turtlenecks and soul patches and offering instead tie-dyes and dreadlocks. While this in itself isn’t too surprising, the fact that people have now decided to forego snapping their fingers in appreciation and instead hit the dance floor hard is a definite shock.