Music

Medeski, Martin & Wood plus Nels Cline: Woodstock Sessions, Vol. 2

The funky organ trio gets together in the studio with a live audience and an adventurous guitarist to break the mold.


Medeski, Martin & Wood plus Nels Cline

Woodstock Sessions, Vol. 2

Label: Woodstock Sessions
US Release Date: 2014-04-15
UK Release Date: 2014-04-15
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Jazz has had an uneasy relationship with fame -- with success -- for a long time now. Back in the 1930s and 1940s, jazz really was the popular music of the US. Benny Goodman really was Jay-Z, and maybe Duke Ellington was... Wilco? But once rock swept in (and certainly by the late 1960s), when a jazz musician reached for genuine commercial success, that success was met with suspicion that he or she was selling out, watering down the art for commerce.

And, often enough, it was true.

In the new millennium, the idea of a jazz musician getting really “big” has shifted, particularly since success in the music business no longer means continual radio play or album sales. Today, there are corners of the music world where bands could not be any bigger even though their records never reach FM broadcast. Like Medeski Martin & Wood -- a trio of improvising instrumentalists who regularly sell out rock theaters and play to a crowd of young people with no particular interest in, say, Wayne Shorter. Medeski Martin & Wood are stars of a sort in the jam band world.

This release, Woodstock Sessions Vol. 2, a live collaboration with Wilco guitarist (and adventurous improviser) Nels Cline, clearly shows that Medeski Martin & Wood has not let fame water down their approach. The glorious thing about these musicians -- and about this recording -- is that it demonstrates a certain oblivion to making music that’s “easy” to listen to, even though it exploits so many of the elements of music that have brought Medeski Martin & Wood and Cline a big audience.

Not that Woodstock Sessions Vol. 2 is going to be a big seller among Wilco or Medeski Martin & Wood fans. But it’s honest, killer music that comes right out of these guys’ strengths, just pushed more toward the edge of noise and experiment. It still has groove and passion, drive and daring. Of course.

The set-up for this record is interesting: Medeski Martin & Wood and Cline had played together two years earlier at The Blue Note in New York, and for the reprise they chose Applehead Studios in Woodstock, NY. But they brought in 75 audience members to watch the live recording session. So, what happens here is captured with impeccable sound yet feels like a risk, a tightrope walk of a sort.

It starts with a distorted fanfare for overdriven organ and drums. “Doors of Deception” quickly moves into a more mysterious space, however: no tempo, atmospheric clicks and clacks, quiet sweeps of sound that then ease us into the next song, “Bonjour Beze”. It’s hard to know exactly where one player stops and another starts for quite a while, but eventually a set of licks emerge from the mist of sound -- a repeating low figure on guitar, a thrilling syncopation on toms and snare, a bass line, and what seems like a message from another galaxy on organ. It seems off to call this “free jazz”, even as this tune breaks down and goes in another tempo-less direction, unrestricted by a set harmonic pattern. Instead it is a collage or a set of improvised gestures. Indeed, it is not at all clear how much (if any) of this music was composed ahead of time. It feels that loose and organic.

Even a performance that is as structured as “Mezcal” seems to grow from a seedling. This tune starts as a quick, fusion lick on guitar, but soon the whole band is building up a head of steam over which Cline takes off on a volcanic rock-style solo. The coda to the song, however, is just as interesting -- an interlude of relative quiet after the funked-out bass line and ripping drums give way to more free time. The next chapter, “Les Blank”, starts by moving slowly between two chords. Medeski dials up a soft, whistling tone on B3 and assays the interesting areas of this gentle sway. But the groove eventually morphs into something more aggressive, with Wood’s electric bass moving all around as Cline scratches out a real funk feeling. This section of the concert feels utterly likely to please an audience, as Cline rides the wave of this amazing trio like a snowboarder flying off a launch. But you can’t be surprised that the tune ramps down after a while into a slow and haunting groove that is punctuated by a set of strange sounds (is it the acoustic bass or the organ that sounds like a bass clarinet here? how does Medeski get that weird twisting sound from the keys? how delicious is it when Billy Martin breaks the steady groove and seems to purposely stumble, tumble, then catch the groove again?).

This is the pattern of this concert -- it gives you what you might like but then it dares you to listen more closely. The easy funk fun of “Jade” gives way to the exploratory intrigue of “Looters”. “Conebranch” is a tone poem of sorts, moody and gentle and echoing, then “Arm & Leg” crackles with noise and distortion and rumble. The closer, “Cinders”, brings things to a stately but ambiguous ending. Cline plays a searching melody reminiscent of the opening of Miles Davis’s “In a Silent Way”, and the trio flows below him, working as a single unit always. Medeski’s organ tone is completely unique, buzzing and otherworldly. The band lifts Cline up and then slowly allows the song to disintegrate around them, slowly collapsing the performance into a tempo-less, aharmonic drizzle of plucked-rung-stippled notes. Like the slowly falling sparks of a certain kind of firework, this concert glimmers into settled darkness.

Listening to Woodstock Sessions a second time, you can’t say that any one player steals the show. Cline burns and soars in places, but he is just as likely to shift into the texture and fabric of the band. Medeski is everywhere at once, inventive and supportive both. Martin sets the groove as necessary but works just as beautifully as a colorist and provocateur. And Wood is the most selfless of all -- present when you need him but often so integral that he’s hard to find in the mix. And this is what makes the session work. What might have been a “supergroup” of some kind turns out to be merely a true group that is “super” because there is so little grandstanding.

Best of all, Woodstock Sessions Vol. 2 features a group of musicians who could easily play to the audiences that are so utterly ready to love them. Instead, they play for themselves, for the passion they have for their art. It’s not a record to alienate fans, but it’s a record to challenge fans and win them over to stretches beyond their comfort zone. A thrill, a dare, a terrific record.

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The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.


In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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