It's hard to believe that it's been almost ten years since a buddy threw on Medeski Martin & Wood's Friday Afternoon in the Universe for me one night midway through my college education. "I saw these guys on Conan last night, this disc is amazing!" he said. That was the first and last instance of someone I know buying music based on a talk show appearance, but if there was a cutting edge of late night comedy, Conan O'Brien was it. Similarly, if there was a cutting edge of jam music, MMW was about to ascend to its mantle. I was instantly floored. It's kind of amazing that this trio of ultra-talent has stayed together long enough to amass an impressive catalog of gamut-spread material that seems to cover anything you could want a trio of keyboards, basses, and percussion to cover... And they've done it all in superlative fashion. Now comes MMW's latest release, End of the World Party (Just In Case) (Blue Note) which may be the best title for a CD this year and may well be the band's best release since Friday Afternoon.

The album represents all the best that MMW has to offer, giving pieces of their past dalliances and improving on old ideas. It's as if the last decade has been the building of the Medeski-Martin-and-Wood house, filling it with all the comforts of home, rearranging the furniture so it's just right, and now finally that task is done and they get to live and play in their perfect abode. The album opens with "Anonymous Skulls" which recalls the band's forward-looking Combustication with digital pops and whirrs (provided by producer John King credited with "a little bit of this, a little bit of that" in the liner notes. His fingerprints are all over this disc) underlying an impossibly funky jam session. "Mami Gato" follows in a long line of gorgeous acoustic numbers over the years that only these guys can comfortably juxtapose in an otherwise electric groovefest. The album's centerpiece "Sasa" brings back the guest-horn-players (with Steven Bernstein and Briggan Krauss on trumpet and sax respectively) big band feel from the earlier pre-Friday Afternoon efforts. This track also features longtime friend Marc Ribot, who maintains a healthy presence on the album. If End of the World Party has a weakness, it's the underutilization of Ribot, who feels pasted on to many of the tracks he plays on. Still, he rocks where he can--I'd rate his guest spot a "good" not "great."

Man, this album is funky. MMW may not be redefining music at every turn, but they do have a knack for redefining what funky is and they do not fail here. I listened to this album three times straight with my soul smiling the whole way through. Each track is succinct, less than five minutes, which is not trivial. The music feels drawn out and loose and improvised, but there are tons of ideas carefully constructed and packed into each tune. "Reflector" barely takes four minutes to brilliantly cut across multiple themes, slapping the notions of genre in the ass a few times for good measure; it's my favorite track. Medeski, Martin and Wood are in their own house now, for once they are not reinventing themselves and the result is perhaps their best effort yet.

Aaron Stein
JamBase | New York
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[Published on: 9/10/04]

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