Medeski, Martin & Wood: Separate Parts of The Singularity
by Adam Perry for Jambands.com
Growing up as music lovers on the East Coast—especially if you’ve had any contact with the jamband scene here—it’s safe to say most of us had a girlfriend in college who uttered the words “Medeski, Martin and Wood changed my life.” The trio, formed in New York City almost 20 years ago, has long had a knack for luring young String Cheese Incident or Phish fans into small, sweaty clubs and quaint theaters and blowing their minds with virtuosic jazz-based madness that can subsequently make much of what passes for jamband music permanently laughable in comparison.
Still, can one band change a person’s life? Personally, you’d have to ask me about the Clash to get a “yes” on that one, but what’s absolutely certain is that the idea of playing in a band with zero boundaries changed the lives of three well-trained musicians named John Medeski, Billy Martin and Chris Wood—originally an acoustic jazz trio introduced to each other by Martin’s drum teacher Bob Moses—when they formed MMW in 1991.
I recently spoke with all three members of MMW individually on subjects ranging from the improvisation-heavy group’s seemingly never-ending connection with each other to their impending hiatus. For a band that has released over a dozen albums together—plus two with guitarist John Scofield—and enjoyed equal attention from respected jazz institutions like Downbeat and noted hippie magazines such as Relix, MMW’s trio of passionate instrumentalists sure doesn’t seem tired of describing what brought them together in the first place.
“There is no leader and no formula,” bassist Wood says. “We’re never really sure what we’re going to do or how it will turn out. Things have always come about in an organic way for us…often it’s the music that shows us what direction to take. No one person is in control.”
Both Medeski and Martin told me that what has kept the band together so long is not only how much they still enjoy playing together but also the amount of music knowledge each of the diversely talented musicians glean from jamming with outside players.
“What keeps us coming back or going on together is what we bring back to share from the outside,” says drummer/percussionist Martin. “That infuses a new excitement about developing new repertoire and energy. It is like a marriage and we have to share things but also enjoy the separate parts of our singularity.”
“I’m not sure where our career is going, but I know that the only reason we have stayed together is because of the music,” pianist and keyboardist Medeski adds. “We still have fun and get a lot out of creating together, and doing all sorts of other projects keeps us growing as individuals, which feeds what we do when we get together. Not one of us is defined solely by MMW. Plus, we haven’t had that big hit we have to play every night that we hate. In terms of why we haven’t become sick of each other, we’re family, so we are way past the getting sick of each other part. It’s much deeper.”
Radiolarians, a three-part series of albums released between September 2008 and August of last year, injected a plethora of new inspiration and excitement—not to mention many new tunes—into a band that had perhaps begun to paint itself into a corner by attracting more and more of the sort of jamband-oriented fans who generally crave funky beats and “phatty” solos. Conversely, Radiolarians I alone features spacey Eno/Hassell experimental music, hard-charging jazz-funk along the lines of the Beastie Boys’ The In Sound From Way Out, dusty Latin acoustic-guitar-led cinematic dirges and classy, complex piano-focused jazz romps that fall somewhere between Art Tatum and “I Turn My Camera On”-era Spoon.
Ironically, the idea for creating three full albums in one year came not from listening to or playing music but from a science book. Actually, two books.
“The [Radiolarians] idea came from reading a book about intelligence in nature,” Medeski says. “It talked about a species of bird that returns every year with a new song for the year and never repeats itself in its lifetime. Sounded like our dream [as a band]. So we transposed the idea to writing a night’s worth of new material every time we went on tour that year, never to play it again. We would write it, explore it on the road and record it after the tour. Of course, we threw the theory of never playing the songs again out the back door. We’re not as hip as that bird.”
Martin’s version of the story is the same…but different.
“John suggested seasonal tours: writing sessions, rehearsing, [then] tour, record. From that we had a seed of an idea. I found a book with Ernst Haeckel’s images of ocean life when we were in Tel Aviv and suggested these images could be used in the series of seasonal recordings. Then that developed into what our music tries to do as an image and conceptually: evolve, and [include] lots of variety.”
Wood narrowed it down to practicality.
“We needed to create a structure for us to write a lot of new material. It felt like it was time to reinvent ourselves, so this idea developed to do a series of three tours where we would write a couple sets’ worth of new music before going out on the road. Then we would go on tour and develop the music in front of live audiences for a couple of weeks. After the tour we went into the studio and recorded it.”
All three LPs in the Radiolarians series are bursting with fresh musical ideas, phrases and stimuli, from the exploration of disparate genres to the very instruments MMW chose for each track. What I find most amazing about the three albums, which are now collected in The Evolutionary Set, is that no track consists only of two musicians simply vamping for a remaining soloist. Each instrument seems bound to the others, in conversation and support, and each album’s journey through musical styles and themes feels as natural as the changing of seasons.
“Broken Mirror” and “Gwyra Mi,” two darkly themed compositions that traverse slow-burning Friends of Dean Martinez-style Western swing and fuzzed-out drum-centric reggae, respectively, finish Radiolarians III in an ominous manner. Although MMW – currently touring as usual – plans to take some time off in 2011, Wood says the sinister-sounding conclusion to the Radiolarians set doesn’t signal anything other than bright possibilities ahead.
“There are a lot of ideas floating around,” he says. “Some are collaborations with other people; some have to do with music education. Still trying to figure that out. Often decisions about what to do next come from knowing what we don’t want to do. ”
According to the jovial Medeski, MMW has only one person to turn to when it comes to planning its next move.
“We consult a man who lives alone, deep in the woods, in a place we can’t name,” he says. “Like an oracle. He’s around 100 years old at this point, but looks in his fifties, except for his teeth.”
In all seriousness, the fact that an instrumental band such as Medeski, Martin and Wood have derived inspiration for their music so often from the written word may seem stranger to some than a 100-year-old oracle serving as the band’s manager. MMW’s first album, 1992’s Notes from the Underground, was named after the classic Dostoyevsky novel, and the literary references have kept coming ever since.
“Words—written or spoken, serious or humorous—have had an impact,” says Medeski. “Friday Afternoon in the Universe comes from the first line of a Kerouac poem; Combustication was coined by science professor Dr. Julius Sumner Miller, Uninvisible by Shackman Carl Green. But I don’t know if I can say how these words influence the music. It’s really on an instinctual level. Every art form we’ve experienced, or anything that ever happens in our lives, influences our music.”
Again, Wood agrees, if matter-of-factly.
“I think we’re influenced by pretty much anything and everything, but words don’t necessarily inspire specific musical gestures,” he says. “At least not directly.”
Over the past 19 years, MMW has made a direct mark on the landscape of American music by advocating freedom and experimentation but also hard work and expertise, two things that are often missing in conjunction with improvisation. Without a hit record or the Phish-like ability to pack sports arenas, all three musicians live comfortably—and are revered by their peers—but literally sweat to earn their pay just as they did in the beginning. Not that they’re complaining.
“It’s a perfect world for me in the sense that I can have a life outside of the musical career,” Martin says of not being an A-list celebrity.
“I thinks it’s great not being recognized the way huge stars are,” says Medeski. “That looks like a drag. I’m not sure how respected we are, but we do what we do and try not to worry about all that. Some people listen, some don’t. Sure would be nice to get a huge star’s paycheck, though—maybe we should sing…”
“I think we’re lucky to be able to make a living by playing music,” Wood concludes. “Being a household name, it seems to me, would create a lot of pressure and expectation that could be distracting to what you want to do. It’s nice to be somewhere in the middle.”
As for celebrating their 20th anniversary of playing music together next year, Medeski joked about retirement; in truth, MMW has more treats planned for its fans.
“20 singles next year to celebrate our 20 years together,” an excited-sounding Martin says. “Maybe record some new improvisations, go into the archives and mix a live record with John Scofield and then probably take a break. Anything can influence our next idea.”
Summing up two decades of touring and recording as MMW, Wood was able to rationalize the group’s ongoing forward momentum—something that’s tough to maintain for so long in any industry—with one sentence:
“We still surprise each other.”
And we’re still listening.