Words by: Matthew Jaworski | Images by: Tim McDonald
Medeski Martin & Wood :: 02.24.08 :: Count Basie Theater :: Red Bank, NJ
There are few bands on the scene as daringly adventurous and prolific as Medeski Martin & Wood, and 2008 could prove to be the band's most exploratory and fertile period yet. In January, MMW released the excellent kids-music album Let's Go Everywhere, and this summer the band will be hosting Camp MMW, where participants will get to interact with the band and fellow musicians for "five days of intensive workshops and seminars, deep listening, musical exploration, and improvisation." Finally, they will be releasing three more albums of brand new music, written solely for and corresponding with this year's three tours. For over 15 years, MMW have been employing groundbreaking, boundary-pushing philosophies to music and performance, but it appears they are now also applying those ideals to the entire music industry.
Hopefully, the band will keep up the pace and continue to write music as engaging, unique and strong as what they played at New Jersey's historic Count Basie Theatre. The new tunes, none of which have confirmed titles yet, not only display their signature funkiness and masterful improvisation but also expand upon their musical palette. The band touched on a wide array of styles and moods, from jazzy to folky, spacey to groovy, melancholy to balls-to-the-wall rock.
John Medeski began the first jam with his back to the audience, eliciting bizarre, alien buzzes and murmurs from his stack of keyboards. Chris Wood soon joined in, using a bow to produce an otherworldly drone from his upright bass. Meanwhile, Billy Martin picked up various bells, shakers and whistles to add to the spacey din. Soon, Medeski introduced the melodic theme and the trio jumped into their familiar, second-line funk. The band seamlessly switched back and forth between the groovy and spacey sections, giving each other approving nods.
The third song, a relentlessly driving jazz piece, was a major highlight of the first set. While Wood propelled forward, Martin laid down a steady, powerful beat, that despite his light, graceful touch still sounded absolutely massive. As the song melted into a quiet, psychedelic jam, Medeski moved from his Hammond organ to the piano and began a jaw-dropping solo. With arms flailing, Medeski flew over the keyboard, at times pounding furiously and then soaring majestically. He eventually reintroduced the melodic line and the crowd raucously cheered.
Billy Martin :: 02.24 :: Count Basie Theater
That song morphed into a lumbering folk dirge that left some audience members staring in amazement while others stepped away to buy another drink. Medeski drove the tune with his melodica while Martin pulled out seemingly every item from his massive percussion arsenal – finger cymbals, clave, tambourine, shakers, gong and agogô.
After a drum jam that had the trio center stage whacking mercilessly on congas and bongos, MMW closed the set with a brutal funk boiler that made random audience members jump out of their seats and start dancing. It was a perfectly intense and soulful set-closer.
The first few songs of the second set highlighted Wood's immeasurable talents. Assuming the role typically assigned to the drummer, Wood held down the rhythm, allowing his bandmates to go off on extended solos. Between the first and second songs, Wood played an astounding, dynamic solo on the upright bass that floored the audience.
Wood & Medeski :: 02.24 :: Count Basie Theater
The band ramped up the energy for the final three songs. They began with a slow, morbid tune that sounded like a funeral song from a Western. With Martin playing his less-is-more drum set with mallets, Medeski led with his melodica, which sounded like a haunting, lonely accordion. Likewise, without missing a beat, Martin amazingly switched from mallets to tambourine to sticks to brushes and finally back to the tambourine.
For the final song of the set, MMW pulled out all the stops for a thundering, full-blown rock epic. Reminiscent of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' version of "Higher Ground," the tune raged forward and whipped the crowd into a frenzy. The Hammond organ was smoking and Martin exploded massive triplets while Wood shimmed with his electric bass like a Thriller back-up dancer. This song was simply gigantic and will certainly be a fan-favorite for years to come.
Medeski Martin & Wood continue to evolve and, this year, they're obliterating the traditional roles and routines of their band. This first batch of songs is extremely strong, diverse and dynamic, and one can only imagine what the rest of this year holds for this remarkable band.
JamBase | New Jersey
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