Medeski Martin & Wood Teams With Alarm Will Sound At Brooklyn Steel: Review & Videos

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Words by: Aaron Stein

Medeski Martin & Wood with Alarm Will Sound
01.09.18 :: Brooklyn Steel :: New York City

All great live bands need to have some elasticity, the ability to adjust to the room, the crowd, to each other. Perhaps no band of the last 3 decades is more limber in this way than Medeski, Martin & Wood, who are downright contortionists, bending, twisting and forcing themselves into shapes of genre, size and style like it’s the most natural thing in the world. This extends to the band itself: the trio takes on additional guests and members — guitarists, horns, DJ’s; one or two or half a dozen — and easily becomes a new thing that’s just as good, and almost the same when they are out on their own or short a member. Their career is filled with examples of these, talk to any even casual MMW fan and they’ll tell you about “that time with Marc Ribot” or when DJ Logic brought the show to another level. So, it’s no surprise to find the trio playing with a chamber orchestra, Alarm Will Sound, at Brooklyn Steel Wednesday night, and not much more surprising to find that it worked quite well. The only question going into the show was in what ways it would work, and, as it so happens, the answer is: pretty much all of them.

The show was part of New York City’s Winter Jazz Festival which has become adept at pairing different musicians and groups together. In this case, the collaboration actually came out of a Colorado appearance more than four years ago which resulted in a live album release last year. The show began with everyone playing together. People might joke at an MMW show that the three guys make enough music for six, but the audience quickly found out what it’s like when they’re joined by 16.

The sound was big, of course, cinematic and grand. The trio was tucked over to the side of the stage with Alarm Will Sound taking the bulk of the space. It almost felt like Medeski, Martin & Wood were narrating some dramatization of episodes from their life in some off-Broadway show. The opening piece featured interesting moments of “twinning” — the Alarm Will Sound pianist matching keyboardist John Medeski, a moment where both bassists played in duet, Billy Martin playing off the percussionist. Bits of classic MMW groove spun off an expansive clarinet solo and later a bit of jazzed trumpet. The night’s music could best be described as groove meets gravitas the ensemble and the trio taking turns playing their own material separately and together. When the core trio finally took a couple of old school groovers deep, the crowd found their space to move and you could almost feel a collective thought bubble forming above the audience, filled with the words “this is what I’ve been waiting for.” The first set closed with, “The Eye Of Ra,” a piece composed by Medeski, and felt like one of his more expansive organ solos come to life Frankstein’s-monster-style. Heavy and angular, beautiful and pensive and then chunky with boogie, the ensemble, flute-to-tuba brought full color to the black-and-whites of Medeski’s keys.

After a short break, the second set opened with just the trio playing. Basked in orange light, the ensuing 30 minutes were like an old heist movie where the principals are “getting the old gang back together.” While it had been a couple years since MMW had played at all in their hometown New York and more still since they’ve played with any regularity, this magical stretch showed why the room was filled with eager ears. For me, having seen all three members play in different groups over the past few years, the real blast was coming from Chris Wood’s electric bass, which is, in my opinion, too rare a treat. His prickly tone commanded the jamming which went from heavygroove to chaos and back again. Spoiler alert: they pulled off the heist, just like back in the day. That continuous flow of full-trio exploration carried its energy into the remainder of the set. The ensemble played an equally dynamic and engaging piece, “Escape Wisconsin,” written by violinist Caleb Burhans. A piece by Billy Martin, called “Coral Sea” was described as “impressionistic” by the composer and certainly was, like Medeski’s, a bit of Billy Martin pots-and-pans come to life, a scene in Fantasia where the magic wand gets into the wrong (or right) hands.

Great shows end big, and this one certainly did as Alarm Will Sound joined forces with Medeski Martin & Wood for expansive takes on two MMW originals “Anonymous Skulls” and “End of the World Party,” the first two tracks off the End Of The World Party (Just In Case) album from 2004. The arrangements by members of AWS were fascinating, the orchestra mining the original songs for both their grooves and subtleties and exploding them in all dimensions. As much as it had all night, it felt like a true collaboration, both groups contorting their limber selves to fit together as if it were meant to be all along. For the encore, Martin stepped up front and conducted both the musicians and the audience in a wild bit of controlled improvisation that a fun way to end the show, the crowd encouraged to emulate the wildness of the strings and horns, everyone in the room testing their elasticity one last time.

Videos

Opening Number Captured by Parker Harrington

Just Like I Pictured It Captured by Chris Bobbins

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Alarm Will Sound

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Pro Tip: Click “Add to My Bands” above and we’ll notify you when Alarm Will Sound announces shows in your area.