[6 September 2004]
Medeski Martin and Wood have long occupied their own musical space. Taking as their original starting point the basic jazz organ trio and gradually adding and emphasizing new elements along the way, they have, over the last decade, developed a sound that is of interest to jazz fans, jam band fans, dance music fans, and funksters. Their latest CD, End of the World Party (Just in Case) takes many of the best elements from their various incarnations, combines them into an enticing concoction, and succeeds where some recent efforts have become mired by keeping the individual tracts succinct.
Some of the credit for this revitalization must be attributable to the production of Dust Brother John King, who has worked on such post-modern masterpieces as Beck’s Odelay and the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique. It seems likely that King is at least partially responsible for MMW’s decision to cut the fat this time out, keeping each track to less than five minutes (the only exception being the excellent title track, which weighs in at 5’11”). There’s more focus to each track as well. Even when the artists visit several genres in the course of a single number (as they often do), there just seems to be less of the meandering experimentation that at times became tiresome on The Dropper and Uninvisible, both of which were produced by hip-hopper Scotty Hard. Those were interesting albums in their own right, but they seemed to be trailing off into a miasma of effects and loops while MMW forgot the groove that brought them to the dance in the first place.
End of the World Party doesn’t just bring MMW back to their funky organ trio roots, however. There’s plenty of new stuff going on here; for example, John Medeski continues to expand his keyboard arsenal that once was limited to acoustic piano and Hammond B-3. The more aggressive attitude is there immediately on the opening track, “Anonymous Skulls”, which manages to create a nice groove yet still sounds panoramic and ambient. The song is a deep sonic stew, utilizing a dizzying array of keyboard sounds, all of which bring to mind various players, genres, and eras. There’s a lot of layering and overdubbing, yet the sound is never too crowded or claustrophobic. “End of the World Party” finds the more familiar Medeski organ and Fender Rhodes sound, with some righteous bass support from Chris Wood, but the newer cinematic sounds and effects are swirled in as well, to great effect.
“Reflector” unleashes guest guitarist Marc Ribot, who plays on four tracks and adds a real rock edge to those numbers. But even more amazing is the way that Medeski slaps around the ‘70s-inspired Stevie Wonder/Herbie Hancock-style clavinet, creating a new take on acid fusion/acid jazz/acid funk/hip-hop. The energy level is incredibly high by this time, and “Bloody Oil” slows it down a bit as Medeski provides an ambient, Middle Eastern-influenced keyboard wash over Wood’s acoustic bass groove. “Mami Gato” is a Latin excursion that emphasizes the lock-in groove of Wood’s bass and Billy Martin’s solid, driving drum and percussion work. Where much of the material on Uninvisible sounded a bit unfinished, all of the tracks here sound fully realized. Hearing John Medeski’s soulful acoustic piano work on this track it’s impossible not to think of pianists such as Herbie Hancock and Ramsey Lewis. On tracks like this, one can hear the elements of MMW’s work that puts them in the same category as new jazz piano trios like the Bad Plus and E.S.T. Yet they also have that ability to ride the groove, even while piling on elements culled from both arty music experiments and outright pop. On a track like “Shine It” they are essentially a jazz organ trio again, and not that different than what one might find on a Jimmy Smith recording. It’s an admirable blending of traditional and modern elements in such a way that neither holds too much sway.
The second half of the album is perhaps a little more groove-oriented than the earlier half, but the newer, more experimental elements are still there. They are simply blended in with more skill and less self-consciousness as MMW and King apparently don’t feel the need to call attention to them. End of the World Party is indeed a party album, but it is by no means a lightweight outing. In fact, it is one of MMW’s most solid recordings, deserving its place next to classic material such as Friday Afternoon in the Universe, Shack Man, and Combustication. If you were somewhat put off by MMW’s last two studio albums or felt that the group just wasn’t having as much fun as before, End of the World Party will assure you that the fun is still there.