Medeski, Martin and Wood: Radiolarians II

[7 July 2009]

By Ron Hart

There isn’t a more flexible or expansive trio working in jazz than keyboardist John Medeski, drummer Billy Martin, and bassist Chris Wood, collectively known as Medeski Martin and Wood.

In their nearly 20 years together as a group, fans have seen Medeski, Martin and Wood’s sound shapeshift from the Brooklyn trio’s early days as an all-acoustic ensemble to their trademark funky, Hammond organ-based sound that made all the Phish hippies trance dance their cares away back in the mid-‘90s, to their most excellent experiments in psychedelic electrics and full-on free jazz of their Blue Note era in the late ‘90s/early ‘00s. And now that they have branched off and started up their own imprint, Indirecto, these guys have been pulling out all the stops, from recording a second collaborative effort with longtime jamming buddy and renowned guitar impresario John Scofield to producing a children’s album.

It seems like ever since they left the gentrification-addled Brooklyn and headed up to New York’s beautiful Catskill region, where they set up a week-long summer music camp at an old resort adjacent to the mighty Esopus, 30 miles outside of the Empire State’s former capital Kingston (the town MMW now call home for their new studio, appropriately titled Shackston), these three guys are truly enjoying the freedom of the space that amazing area provides for city folk.

And perhaps the most significant indication of Medeski, Martin and Wood’s creative comfort up on them there mountains is the Radiolarians series, a revolutionary new way by which an artist, jazz or otherwise, adheres to the age-old music biz model. In 2008, the trio booked three separate tours of the US, Japan, and South America, playing nothing but new compositions they wrote and practiced before hitting the road. This trilogy of Radiolarians albums, the first of which was released last September, is the result of those sessions.

Like the first Radiolarians album, Radiolarians II follows the same trajectory in pushing the boundaries of the already-multifaceted MMW sound beyond the styles for which they are most known. Similar to the “unicellular planktonic marine organisms” this album trilogy is named after, the music featured here is indeed a multi-hued exoskeleton of edgy rock riffs and noise-informed grooves protecting a delicate core of intricate lyricism and uncanny interplay. The results add up to some of the most innovative and forward-thinking stuff Medeski, Martin and Wood have produced since their acid-laced Blue Note masterpiece of 2000 The Dropper.

Highlights here are many, as pretty much all ten of these tracks are pure gold. Things hit hard right from the opening track, the Mr. Bungle-esque “Flat Tires”, with its carnival organ and shit, only to be followed up by the Augustus Pablo-meets-Tom Waits dub-bop rattle of “Junkyard” before segueing into the Money Jungle-like acoustic interlude “Padrecito”. Also take note of “Riffin’ Ed”, which swings like a lost Pete Rock sample, while “Chasen vs. Suribachi” channels DJ Shadow’s more organic moments.

The best track this installment, however, has got to be their soulful rendition of the Rev. Gary Davis’ “Baby Don’t Let Me Follow You Down”. Medeski lays down pure blues licks that are equal parts Bill Evans and Pinetop Perkins, as Wood and Martin keep a rhythm as moody as the cranky old man sitting at the end of the bar they are playing in their minds. It would be great to hear a whole MMW album in this vein come through sometime down the line, to say the least.

The third installment of the Radiolarians series is tentatively slated for release this fall.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/107449-medeski-martin-and-wood-radiolarians-ii/