Part of the charm of Medeski, Martin & Wood is their knack of bringing something innovative to their mix on every occasion. Seeing them periodically for the past three years, I assume from my limited exposure that this coloring of their sound is a gradual, laborious process; a creative course that comes to fruition over time and rehearsal. This makes each MMW show, at least for me, refreshing and fashionable in its own distinct way.
Sunday’s gig on the Toronto Star Stage at Nathan Phillips Square, seven months since their December gig at the Warehouse, fit like a great new shirt - clean, comfortable, and good for second and third glances in the mirror. While the Warehouse show could be best described as a garment I wish I still had the receipt for, this show, a feature performance of the 15th Du Maurier Jazz Festival, was a combination of great MMW standards and a brief yet captivating interlude that offered the evening’s most stylish surprise.
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) Radio Jazz Host Ross Porter introduced the Brooklyn trio as “the past, present, and future of jazz,” and out of the first noticeable space in the second set, Billy Martin incited an assault on the latter claim of the tag. It was the most resounding improvisation of the night. It might have lasted two minutes or ten – I wouldn’t know – but it was an other-worldly, progressive house jam that melded out of traditional MMW territory into what was clearly a synthesis of the band’s most recent collaborations.
The recent Europe and Japan tours, Medeski’s spring slot on the Club d'Elf stage, and Martin’s new record illy B Eats, Volume 1: Groove Band & Jive Around, a collection of samples and beats for DJ use, had to have been catalysts for this unique synergy. That it split over at a festival whose mandate it is to book an ensemble of bands that best reflect the unpredictability of the genre was appropriate enough. From the rapt sweaty mob bobbing on the front rail to those content to observe from the back patio of the tent, the experiment was warmly received.
I’ve mulled over the jazz designation pinned on MMW’s label before, and accept that in the loose, improvised arrangements that bridge familiar chord and bass lines – the wave between the swells – the band clearly nods to traditional jazz standards. But in the gritty, classic moments that tend to stand out at a show, like the predictable but no less welcome "Bubblehouse" that closed Sunday’s second set, the band seemed to forsake these roots for more of a power trio outfit.
I read once that Medeski was a piano virtuoso when the band first started touring in the early nineties, but he had to compromise with his gear so it would fit in their tour van. Now, the grand piano faces side stage, away from the crowd, avoiding confrontation. His Hammond gear faces inward, toward Wood, Martin, and the dance floor, as his primary tool for raising the groove’s energy to frenetic levels. His play, as everyone knows, is astounding. Any self-absorbed member of the UK music press would be quick to call it ‘wanking.’
But for all the wanking Medeski offered up during two modest 60-minute sets and the encore, much of the show, and especially the dissonant trance loop groove that left the strongest impression, focused on Martin’s drum work. From the opening notes, he seemed to be the energy orb that had the two thousand or so in attendance transfixed – all fans of jazz’s past, present, and future alike.
Go See Live Music!