The Unconscious Realm: An Interview With Medeski, Martin & Wood Drummer Billy Martin

Billy Martin and John Medeski

“Every once in a while I get a little backlash from crazy fans who think that I should only play music as part of Medeski, Martin & Wood. ‘What are you doing without Chris Wood?’ Well, this is not an MMW record.”

That’s the dilemma facing a creative, improvising musician — a guy whose heart is really downtown with the avant-garde scene — who happens to have become mighty popular just doing his thing. That’s Billy Martin’s less-than-terrible problem.

Since 1991, Martin has been the drummer in one of the most surprisingly popular and versatile groups in instrumental music. Basically a jazz trio — sometimes acoustic piano, acoustic bass, and drums; sometimes a turned-on organ trio supplemented by samples, horns, or electric guitar — Medeski, Martin & Wood has gradually become a major sensation on the jam band scene, playing in rock halls to sell-out crowds while still recording for jazz’s most august label, Blue Note.

Martin’s latest album — recorded for his own independent label, Amulet — is a series of duets between Medeski and himself on organ and drums. Like most MMW albums, Mago contains spacious grooves and funky polyrhythms beneath a swirl of B-3 soul. But it also boasts a diversity of other sounds. The opener and the closer are both challenging hunks of decidedly “out” jazz in which Martin and Medeski play the roles of Tony Williams and Larry Young facing off without any significant harmonic or metric restrictions. This is the kind of challenging music that asks more of its listener than a head bob or a swooshy Deadhead dance.

In short, a good number of fans aren’t going to like it. But that isn’t the kind of thing that is going to make Martin hesitate for a moment.

“We’re trying to develop as artists. A lot my heart and soul is in the more avant-garde stuff. And it’s not as simple to make a living doing that. What I do with MMW is the most commercially successful stuff. But even in MMW, we don’t compromise to make money. We’re still, as a band, just making ends meet — we’re not putting a lot of money in the bank.”

This is a fairly startling statement. If MMW is not a profitable jazz outfit, then one hesitates to imagine that any jazz group banks much of anything. But Martin is quick to note that MMW has purposely made a career of confounding expectations — of not capitalizing on its obvious market. “We thrive on trying to keep things fresh and creative — not sounding like a broken record,” Martin notes. “Some people feel that you’re responsible to do only what they know — the music that has allowed you to ‘make it’. But we’ve made it by doing all of these things. We’ve all played with downtown musicians like John Zorn, Marc Ribot, the Lounge Lizards. At the same time we’ve played with Iggy Pop and KD Lang. We’ve done jazz standards in our own way sometimes, and sometimes and we’ve done hip-hop. Being involved with a lot of different genres and projects is what makes it all work.”

In fact, with technology and the marketplace downplaying the role of the major record labels, more and more bands seem to be “making it” the MMW way. For MMW, however, it was not a conscious strategy. “We didn’t have our career figured out,” Martin explains. “We just knew that we liked to improvise, perform, and be on the edge. I felt that if we just got out there, people could see how intense it could be, and how funny, and how serious — all those things. We thought that could carry over.”

Still, Martin acknowledges “it was a risk to try to make it that way.” And so Amulet Records, which Martin started a few years ago, represents a hedging of artistic bets — a place where the drummer might explore his crazier passions in public but without the intense scrutiny sure to befall an MMW record. Last year, Martin released a live record with his band Socket, an outfit essentially allergic to a groove or a hook, incorporating noise and ambient textures with out-jazz methods. Mago, while much more eager to please, still starts with a completely improvised track with no time signature.

“Yeah, that is not necessarily a smart commercial move.” Martin laughs at himself here but also seems to know exactly what he wants from Mago. “Because it’s a small label, this is the place to do it. To do it the way we really feel it’s fine — the way we wanted it. It’s almost like an anti-hip-hop intro — not just a little intro but this huge thing where we get right to the point. We wanted to have the thing right out front — check this out! — not to bury it or hide it.”

Playing openly and without harmonic or rhythmic restrictions sits at the core of the electricity between Martin and Medeski. “John and I have a certain chemistry when we play together that we noticed right away. This record is something we wanted to do to celebrate that. We like to get really expansive and free — to have a conversation with each other. That stuff is the deepest connection that John and I have. We sandwiched all the grooves between the deep creek stuff — a bold crazy move, but that is how we would play a set, to open up like that then get into other stuff. MMW often does that — to open up free and then get into groove stuff.”

How, then, is Mago different from a MMW session? While you miss Wood’s elastic bass lines, the pedals of the organ provide a healthy bottom groove. Indeed, listening to Mago, you come to realize how similar the drums and the Hammond organ truly are — both orchestral instruments that require the musician to use both his arms and legs in a continual flow.

Martin says that the duet format allows both he and Medeski to edit themselves less. “It feels very complete when we play together. In some ways we are similar, and in other ways we’re not. There is an intensity — we’re always listening and backing each other up in a way which really seems to fill in the sound. In a setting with more people, sometimes you have to simplify. When it’s just the two of us, we really like exploring sound and rhythm and the minimalist aspect of playing a groove and arranging it to make it fundamental and fun to listen to.”

Medeski’s organ — and he only plays organ on Mago, rather than the array of keyboards he might — is the lead instrument melodically, but this record is mainly about rhythm. Beyond the out-jazz and the groove material, many tracks are flavored by “world music” tones. “When you break it down to two musicians, you just have two halves, and the stronger language of the individual comes out more,” Martin explains. “When you just have the two instruments, John can really embrace what I want to play. If I want to check out another beat, there’s not much to cloud it up. And, being a drummer, any African music is big, and certainly Brazilian music.”

The track “Bonfa” is, naturally, a reference to Brazilian samba guitarist and singer Luis Bonfa. The groove combines New Orleans with Rio. “John embraces that, and Brazilian music is one of the things we love to listen to and check out. Before going into the studio, we listened to some old Bonfa from the ’60s and wanted to get that vibe. At first we tried to rearrange a real Bonfa piece, then we did ‘Bonfa’ on our own. We didn’t want to cop a lick but to get the spirit.”

On that track, as on about half the Mago music, there is a dose of post-production input from Good & Evil Studios. “The post-recording mixing was all done by Danny Blume of Good & Evil,” says Martin. “The initial recordings were all done in two days in a barn-like studio upstate last summer. John and I wanted to record any and all ideas that we had and go about in many different ways throughout the two days of recording. We sat on all this material for a few months before seeing what felt strong, what could use a little editing. So we started mixing — then decided to get in touch with Danny, who mixed one track. I loved it, so I asked him to do a few more. A few tracks needed a form, and I wanted to give Danny a chance to shape it.”

The result is a record that toggles between in and out, traditional and processed. A track like “Ms. Teardrop” could almost be on a Jimmy Smith record from the 1960s, so easily funky and blues-drenched it is. “Syncretism” grooves a different way — clouded with the texture of electronica as Blume buries the drum feel in a synthetic mix that emphasizes its most hypnotic qualities. Then “L’Aventura” takes you on an eight-minute ride of pure nerve as the groove evaporates into a series of skitter-shot rolls and pitter-pat comments around an organ improvisation that is consciously melodic and fractured at the same time.

In its reach and ambition, Mago is decidedly a jazz record while most often sounding oddly apart from the “jazz” vocabulary. Martin acknowledges a certain discomfort with — and even insecurity about — the question of really being a “jazz musician”.

“I’m definitely conscious of staying away from that jazz bebop thing, mainly because I can’t do it. I don’t consider myself a jazz virtuoso who can play fast swing and who can control it. I consider myself more of an outsider when it comes to how I play music. I love all music. But I love Ellington, Coltrane, Mingus, Cecil Taylor, Ornette, Miles — all that stuff I love very much. It’s part of my vocabulary.”

The vocabulary of Mago, however, is both more spare and more surprising. The performances rarely sound like “jazz” in the sense of having a melody followed by a string of improvised solos. The tracks sound more whole.

“I try to stay in the unconscious realm — not too cerebral or conceptual. Everybody has their own vocabulary, whether it be with a paintbrush or a pen. We all have our way of expressing ourselves.” For Martin and Medeski, that natural vocabulary is less about “playing chorus after chorus, notey-notey-notey, which after a while can be like doing a calisthenics.

“If you’re a musician who plays fast flurries of notes and you’re saying something — that’s great. But in general we don’t make a decision not to do things because they’re not cool. We do whatever it is we feel doing in the moment — to be in the spirit of the moment. But to be true to our voice.”

Which describes the spirit of Mago well: a record that is authentically diverse, just organ and drums (and a dose of computerized reshuffling) from a pair of musicians who have never been able to — or willing to — limit themselves to what their fans may want to hear. In the process, however, you know they are opening up new ears.

“Some audience members listen to us for one reason, but then they may have an epiphany. And, honestly, I really appreciate even just one person taking note of what we’re really trying to do.”