Pushing the Grooves

Charleston City Paper | September 30, 2006
“In general, we’re not into the categorization because we go to so many places,” says drummer Billy Martin of N.Y.C’s accomplished instrumental trio Medeski, Martin & Wood. “You can’t say we’re just jazz or rock or funk or whatever. We use all those things in our language. It’s part of our vocabulary. I call it ‘dance music’ … not ‘funk.’”

Each of the musicians — Martin, keyboardist John Medeski, and bassist Chris Wood — came up jamming in the same, tight-knit jazz scene in the late-’80s in Manhattan alongside the likes of John Lurie, Mark Ribot John Zorn, and Bob Moses. Since forming in 1991, MM&W have improvised from an organic foundation and detoured in many musical directions. It’s unfair to simply tag them as a “modern jazz band,” or a “funky jam band,” or whatever else. It’s useless to define them with a catchy phrase or a subcategory. They obviously like to play with rhythms and groove rather than with melodies and solos… and they obviously have the chops and the imagination to accomplish something fresh and unique.

Medeski Martin & Wood returned to the road last year behind a studio album titled End Of The World Party (Just in Case) and a new compilation called Note Bleu: The Best of the Blue Note Years 1998- 2005 — both released on the Blue Note label. For End Of The World Party, the trio up with producer John King of the Dust Brothers, best known for producing classics like the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique and Beck’s Odelay.

“The sound has changed and gone in a couple of different directions,” says Martin of the new studio album. “In the very beginning, we were more of an acoustic piano trio. With the records, we changed the approach to the sounds and the way we recorded them each time. With End of the World Party, it was much different approach with John King’s approach. He works with a little more DJ sensibilities, assembling music for bands to play along with and creating a foundation of stuff to write with. With us, he did the opposite. He goes for the big picture. He used our jam sessions to build the tracks, much in the same way he would go to the record bins and find a cool groove. It still sounds very organic and it still sounds very much like us.”

The 12 tracks on End of the World Party move and twist with a spacious, airy vibe, with embellishments from guitarist Mark Ribot, some heavy Mellotron ‘string sounds” and odd effects from Medeski’s collection of gear, and brassy stuff from slide trumpet player Steven Bernstein and sax player Briggan Krauss. Both the title track and the album opener “Anonymous Skulls” reach back to the electronica sound they dabbled in during the late-’90s. Harder, funkier grooves on “Shine It” and “Reflector” bounce with a more “trio jam session” feel with Medeski’s beefy Hammond B-3 organ sound automatically adding a vintage urban/soul stylishness. The more traditional jazz number “Bloody Oil” demonstrates Wood’s fluid upright bass work and Martin’s feathery footwork on the high hat and kick pedals.

“Playing these tunes live is going to be fun, but we’re also on the verge of finding interesting new ways of playing together,” says Wood. “I want to keep exploring that. It all feels great, and gives me the feeling there’s still a lot more to learn.”

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