By: Chris Clark
Medeski Martin & Wood :: 11.20.08 :: The Fillmore :: San Francisco, CA
It's difficult to imagine a three-piece jazz outfit more talented than Medeski Martin & Wood. Hell, it's arduous to envision any three musicians coming together capable of churning out such a quality body of work as MMW. For the better part of two decades, the Brooklyn-bred pioneers of futuristic jazz-funk-fusion have risen from exploratory late night forays in NYC's ever-burgeoning jazz underworld of the early 1990s to one of today's most lauded and heralded live acts. Nowadays, John Medeski, Billy Martin and Chris Wood have compiled a decorated career filled with stellar albums (Shack-man and End of the World Part), greatly cherished guest appearances (John Scofield and Trey Anastasio for starters) and even a children's album for the kiddies.
I've been seeing MMW since my college days in Buffalo in 2000. Over the last eight years, they have taken me on several musical journeys, from touring with DJ Logic after the release of Combustication to a couple guest appearances by the aforementioned Anastasio in Albany, NY and in a pouring rain before the Disco Biscuits at a one-day festival in New Jersey. But it was recently at The Fillmore that those eight years of experimentally excellent music came full circle. With Radiolarians 1 just released and a slew of new material ready to be ironed out, MMW returned to S.F. with a two set evening filled with the trio's typical ebbs and flows. For me, seeing them live is hit or miss. While the quality of the music is always there, sometimes I feel they are better enjoyed in the comfort your own home, while other times, I leave the show dripping with sweat, grinning like a child walking into FAO Schwartz for the first time.
Playing to a packed house, MMW arrived on time and on fire. With the first of the three-part Radiolatarians series just released, I figured MMW would sample heavily from this collection, which they did. Commencing with a rather open ended foray, Medeski's slick keyboard touch quickly melted the front of the house into a dancing frenzy, as Chris Wood's thick, thumping stand-up basslines pulsated throughout the room. What's immediately noticeable, whether seeing them in S.F. or NYC, is the band's diverse cross-section of fans, from the 40-something, wine sipping piano aficionados to college age neo-hippies and of course, a fair share of sweater-wearing yuppies. This night was much of the same, as jazz lovers from varying walks of life swayed and bounced as MMW's experimental reverberations resonated throughout The Fillmore. Mixing in a couple older, choice cuts with a heavy dose of newer material, Billy Martin's steady hands moved the trio into and out of interim spaces, perpetuating a cycle of dance friendly one minute, chaotic art the next.
For the ultra avid MMW fan, this was certainly the show you were in search of. Gliding piano work and pedal infused organ textures paired almost seamlessly with Wood's dexterous bass and drumming that would surely make Buddy Rich proud. At points, I was unequivocally blown away by the sheer musicianship displayed onstage. A number of "I'll just glance at you and you know exactly where I want to take this beat" type looks spoke for themselves, as the three continued to move as one singular unit and then, all of the sudden, morph into something else. That's what gets me: Just when they are settling into a pocket and finding some comfort deep inside, a tempo change and space shift ensues. This is to be expected with live MMW. The dexterity, talent and pizzazz are all there. It's just a question of how will it all be manifested on any given night.
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