THE DOZENS: MEDESKI, MARTIN & WOOD by Matt Leskovic

Avant Gardism comes in all shapes and sizes today. The new generation of musicians is working within the concepts of their masters and finding new solutions to the questions posed or left unanswered in the music. Whether you believe that jazz has progressed in linear, narrative-like fashion, or adhere to the view that the music is continually reinventing itself with no style more mature than another, the one constant is . . that there are no constants. The jazz world is always in a state of flux.

MMW

For the most part, we know what happened to the lessons of Miles and Monk, Trane and Ornette, Taylor and Ayler. We know how their styles have developed and we can trace the lineage. But what about the foundations laid down in the late 1960s by Reuben Wilson, Lonnie Smith, Groove Holmes, Grant Green, and Idris Muhammad—what has happened to the soulful funk grooves of these masters? After completing my recent Blue Note Rare Grooves Dozens, I began to wonder about the evolution of the groove in jazz.

There are many neo-soul jazz groups in existence, but none is more widely recognized, respected and adventurous than Medeski Martin & Wood. In the early 1990s, MMW’s danceable beats and captivating live performances enamored young fans outside the normal jazz demographic. Album and ticket sales have remained high ever since, but despite their popularity, MMW has never become complacent, and their knack for innovation remains one of their truest qualities. Their distinctive combination of groove jazz with hints of hip-hop, rock, free jazz, electronica, dub, and drum & bass gives them an avant-funk sound that is truly their own.

In other words, MMW has taken the jazz-funk groove to its outer limits and back again. These twelve tracks chronicle their journey.


Medeski Martin & Wood: United

Track

United

Group

Medeski Martin & Wood

CD

Notes From the Underground (Accurate Jazz 5010)

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Musicians:

John Medeski (piano), Chris Wood (bass), Billy Martin (drums).

Composed by Wayne Shorter

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Recorded: New York, December 15-16, 1991

Albumcovermedeskimartinwood-notesfromtheunderground

Rating: 88/100 (learn more)

As a young, acoustic piano trio playing the clubs in the late-night underworld New York City scene, Underground is literally where it all began for MMW. Freshly trained conservatory musicians, their jazz chops have never again sounded as solid as they do here, and their instinctual, creative unity is apparent even at this early stage. Choosing this lesser-known Wayne Shorter composition shows an admiration for their musical heritage but also a desire to stay on the fringes of it. Wood commands attention on this track—his funky bassline is the building block for the tune's groove, and he shines during his fabulously articulated solo. Rarely does undiluted jazz this challenging remain so listener friendly.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Medeski Martin & Wood: Last Chance to Dance Trance (Perhaps)

Track

Last Chance to Dance Trance (Perhaps)

Group

Medeski Martin & Wood

CD

Friday Afternoon In the Universe (Gramavision 79503)

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Musicians:

John Medeski (keyboards), Chris Wood (bass), Billy Martin (drums).

Composed by John Medeski, Billy Martin, Chris Wood

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Recorded: New York, July 24-26, 1994

Albumcovermedeskimartinandwood-fridayafternoonintheuniverse

Rating: 89/100 (learn more)

Care to tango? Sprinkle a little Astor Piazzolla on a Latinized street beat and you get "Last Chance to Dance Trance," MMW's adaptation of the forbidden dance. Wood's bass sings during his lengthy introductory solo, as if calling to his lover for one final dance before retiring to more private festivities. She accepts and the dance begins as Medeski launches into one of the most memorable melodies in the MMW songbook. His dynamic, acoustic piano solo is filled with tight clusters and purposeful dissonance, redefining the harmony and bearing a striking resemblance to Don Pullen. In brilliant contrast, he follows this insistent assault on the ivories with a mellow, modest and melodically linear organ solo. Sensual, dramatic and romantic, this track is guaranteed to stir your blood.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Medeski Martin & Wood: Jelly Belly

Track

Jelly Belly

Group

Medeski Martin & Wood

CD

Shack Man (Gramavision 79514)

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Musicians:

John Medeski (keyboards), Chris Wood (bass), Billy Martin (drums).

Composed by John Medeski, Billy Martin, Chris Wood

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Recorded: Hawaii, June 1996

Albumcovermedeskimartinwood-shackman

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

Shack Man is the most consistent studio album in the MMW catalog, and its production captures the group's live sound better than any other. The album's standout track is "Jelly Belly," which covers a lot of ground in 4:42 but is well paced and tightly arranged. The extended intro is furtive and ominous with Medeski's sustained organ chords breathing a mysterious air over Wood's driving bass hook (one of his best). The simple playfulness of the melody and Martin's bouncy cowbell brighten the mood temporarily before the group dives back into a deep and heavy groove. After a punchy, distorted Wurlitzer solo, Medeski's Hammond swirls and weaves around his electric piano and makes the trio sound deceptively like a quartet. As they charge towards their finish line, the groove suddenly drops and Martin breaks into a wild drum solo, sliding around his kit like a drunken kung fu master.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


John Scofield with Medeski Martin & Wood: Chank

Track

Chank

Artist

John Scofield (guitar)

CD

A Go Go (Verve 314 539 979)

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Musicians:

John Scofield (guitar), John Medeski (organ), Chris Wood (bass), Billy Martin (drums).

Composed by John Scofield

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Albumcoverjohnscofield-agogo

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

John Scofield and Medeski Martin & Wood are a match made in jazz-funk heaven, and A Go Go is arguably the best record MMW has ever recorded. Sensitive to the guitarist's every nuance, they are the ideal rhythm section for Scofield's ambiguity and implicit soulfulness. If Scofield wants to drive, they rev their engine, and if he wants to cool out, they provide him with the laziest of lazy-boy grooves. On "Chank" the guys lay down a new wave boogaloo, with Martin and Wood freakishly synched, hitting every off-beat and syncopation in perfect rhythmic unison. Scofield sounds enthused, his bite-sized phrases dripping with hot soul sauce, but Medeski sounds downright possessed. What on earth did he eat for breakfast that day?!

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


John Scofield with Medeski Martin & Wood: Hottentot

Track

Hottentot

Artist

John Scofield (guitar)

CD

A Go Go (Verve 314 539 979)

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Musicians:

John Scofield (guitar), John Medeski (organ), Chris Wood (bass), Billy Martin (drums).

Composed by John Scofield

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Recorded: New York, 1997

Albumcoverjohnscofield-agogo

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

While most of A Go Go is chilled and relaxed, "Hottentot" turns up the heat, steadily burning until it's a raging inferno by its final note. The groove is simplistic and repeated relentlessly, sustaining an intensity so strong that only the end of the tune will provide a chance to finally exhale. Scofield's solo starts off a touch "noodly" as he looks to gain some traction, but once he reaches the bridge, watch out. His ideas are better defined over the tense, descending chords, and while his sound gets edgier, he never overplays. Medeski then swoops in with all the stops out and unleashes titanic waves of sound, engulfing his bandmates and bringing things to a rousing climax.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Medeski Martin & Wood: Sugar Craft

Track

Sugar Craft

Group

Medeski Martin & Wood

CD

Combustication (Blue Note 93011)

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Musicians:

John Medeski (keyboards), Chris Wood (bass), Billy Martin (drums),

DJ Logic (turntables)

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Composed by John Medeski, Billy Martin, Chris Wood

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Recorded: New York, 1998

Albumcovermedeskimartinwood-combustication

Rating: 86/100 (learn more)

Combustication marked the point where MMW began to stray from the typical organ trio format in search of a progressive and innovative sound that was solely their own. Their hip-hop influence becomes more audible here, heard heavily in Martin's streetwise beats, but most notably through the addition of turntable guru DJ Logic. MMW praised Logic's musicianship, rhythmic sense and his sensitivity as an accompanist. On "Sugar Craft," his resourcefulness and creativity are apparent as well, as he at times provides an ethereal sonic tapestry, plays off Medeski's comping, or fills gaps with well-timed rhythmic scratching and samples. Though he toured with the group for only a little over a year, Logic's influence remains strong to the present, as MMW continues to investigate the fertile boundary where jazz meets hip-hop.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Medeski Martin & Wood: Partido Alto

Track

Partido Alto

Group

Medeski Martin & Wood

CD

The Dropper (Blue Note 22841)

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Musicians:

John Medeski (keyboards), Chris Wood (bass), Billy Martin (drums),

Marshall Allen (alto sax), Eddie Bobé (congas)

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Composed by John Medeski, Billy Martin, Chris Wood

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Recorded: Brooklyn, NY 1999-2000

Albumcovermedeskimartinwood-thedropper

Rating: 83/100 (learn more)

Featuring production by hip-hop producer Scotty Hard, The Dropper doesn't have the slickness of Friday Afternoon in the Universe or the immediacy of Shack Man, but has a gritty rawness that makes it stand alone in the MMW discography, for better or worse. Martin's bass drum booms and Wood is mixed way out front, giving "Partido Alto" a thumping groove that may lead to widespread cases of the spontaneous booty shakes. Long a concert favorite, this jam-friendly tune has fostered many memorable guest appearances at MMW's live shows, including jam-scene guitar hero Trey Anastasio of Phish. Sun Ra altoist Marshall Allen makes his screechy, wailing presence felt briefly on this recording, albeit bizarrely transmogrified by Hard's production. Like many extended jams, however, "Partido Alto" is a tad unfocused, though the groove is fun enough that listeners shouldn't care as soon as they are up dancing by their stereos.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Medeski Martin & Wood: Buster Rides Again

Track

Buster Rides Again

Group

Medeski Martin & Wood

CD

Tonic (Blue Note 25271)

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Musicians:

John Medeski (piano), Chris Wood (bass), Billy Martin (drums).

Composed by Bud Powell

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Recorded: live at Tonic in New York, March 1999

Albumcovermedeskimartinwood-tonic

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

Recorded at the downtown club bearing the same name, Tonic is MMW's return to their acoustic roots and a fine representation of the group as a pure jazz piano trio. Their cohesion as a unit shines in this live set and especially during "Buster Rides Again." At times, one of the trio members will lead, but no one is ever relegated to the role of follower. After Medeski and Wood trade phrases, Martin launches into one of his more elegant solos on record. His playing is rhythmically tricky and at the same time melodically smart as he remains fully conscious of pitch, timbre, tone and phrasing. Inspired by the tune's composer, bebop piano hero Bud Powell, Medeski mixes some boppish, octave-doubled lines in with his normal, aggressively rhythmic assault during his solo on the way out.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Medeski Martin & Wood: Retirement Song

Track

Retirement Song

Group

Medeski Martin & Wood

CD

Uninvisible (Blue Note 35870)

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Musicians:

John Medeski (keyboards), Chris Wood (bass), Billy Martin (drums),

Danny Blume, Scotty Hard (guitars), Eddie Bobé (percussion), DJ P Love (turntables)

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Composed by John Medeski, Billy Martin, Chris Wood

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Recorded: Brooklyn, NY, 1999

Albumcovermedeskimartinwood-uninvisible

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

Similar to no other tune in the MMW songbook, "Retirement Song" finds the trio radically extending the sonic possibilities of their music. Borrowing equally from hip-hop, minimalism, electronica, and Herbie Hancock's "Rockit," it is an effective experiment in layering, texture, color, and the interconnectivity of rhythm and melody. A piece like this could easily sound overproduced or synthetic, but "Retirement Song" pulsates with organic vibrancy. Melodically, the focus is on the trance-inducing, contrapuntal guitar lines which provide a static hook over which Medeski's echoing synths are eerily suspended. Wood's ostinato bass provides an anchor, freeing the rhythmic components – drums, percussion and turntables – to constantly shift their accents around the hypnotic pulse. Want to see into the future? Download this track.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Medeski Martin & Wood: Anonymous Skulls

Track

Anonymous Skulls

Group

Medeski Martin & Wood

CD

End of the World Party (Just In Case) (Blue Note 95633)

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Musicians:

John Medeski (keyboards), Chris Wood (bass), Billy Martin (drums).

Composed by John King, John Medeski, Billy Martin, Chris Wood

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Recorded: Brooklyn, NY, 2003

Albumcovermedeskimartinwood-endoftheworldparty-justincase

Rating: 88/100 (learn more)

Producer John King, one half of the acclaimed Dust Brothers, becomes an unofficial fourth member of MMW on End of the World Party; his production work is as important to the album's success as the trio's performance itself. Purists may criticize a lack of palpable "jazz" improvisation, but the intricately layered studio production cultivates a more focused and less "jammy" outing, a problem that has plagued the group at times throughout their history. "Anonymous Skulls" is a dark and menacing vehicle for Medeski to display his augmented arsenal of keyboards. His Mellotron provides a gloomy orchestration as the fragmented melody is passed from keyboard to keyboard. King's "cut and paste" production technique will pull your ears in dozens of directions, and even after multiple listenings, you'll be continually surprised at what you hear.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Medeski Martin & Wood: Bloody Oil

Track

Bloody Oil

Group

Medeski Martin & Wood

CD

End of the World Party (Just In Case) (Blue Note 95633)

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Musicians:

John Medeski (keyboards), Chris Wood (bass), Billy Martin (drums).

Composed by John King, John Medeski, Billy Martin, Chris Wood

.

Recorded: Brooklyn, NY, 2003

Albumcovermedeskimartinwood-endoftheworldparty-justincase

Rating: 87/100 (learn more)

Cheers to MMW for continually evolving their sound, be it by adding new keyboards or welcoming contributions from and collaborations with new musicians or producers. "Bloody Oil" is a new groove for the trio and is perhaps their closest connection to the experimental vamp jams of Miles Davis's early '70s fusion groups. Martin's sparse beat and Wood's droning bass leave a lot of space for Medeski's voyage into the realm of psychedelic sound and texture. His extensive array of keyboards is echoed, smeared, and morphed, creating a shifting backdrop that ultimately brings Wood's meaty bass to the foreground. Medeski is like a mad conductor with the Mellotron at his fingertips. The expansive, symphonic sounds he lures out of those keys can be downright wicked.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood: In Case the World Changes Its Mind

Track

In Case the World Changes Its Mind

Group

Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood

CD

Out Louder (Indirecto 01)

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Musicians:

John Medeski (keyboards), John Scofield (guitar), Chris Wood (bass), Billy Martin (drums).

Composed by John Medeski, Billy Martin, John Scofield, Chris Wood

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Recorded: Brooklyn, NY, January 2006

Albumcovermedeskiscofieldmartinwood-outlouder

Rating: 86/100 (learn more)

The first release on their new Indirecto label, Out Louder reunites MMW with their pal John Scofield and rekindles the flame left smoldering from 1997's A Go Go. This time around the foursome is truly a band, rather than a soloist with rhythm section. The main ingredients remain constant – groove, blues, funk and soul – but they're cooked up differently and the main course is more condensed. "In Case the World Changes Its Mind" is a sluggish, chunky funk head-bopper, with Martin pulling his groove against the pulse while never dragging or missing the downbeat with any of his fills. Medeski's Wurlitzer riff can only be categorized as filthy and his Melodica charming and refreshingly quirky. Keep your fingers crossed that MSMW records again, though you may have to patch some holes in your favorite dancing shoes after this one.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic



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