Medeski Martin & Wood :: 4.18.09 :: Trocaderos :: Minneapolis, MN
My suspicions would be put to rest as soon as the opening act, a local beatbox/looping extraordinaire named Heatbox, hit the stage. There was already a steady crowd of middle-aged jazz lovers (the show was billed as part of a four-night jazz fest), well dressed 20 and 30-something clubgoers, and jam-circuit kids, some giddily enjoying the rushes of whatever stimulant was going around. Armed with only a microphone and a looping station, Heatbox proceeded to perform what could only be called the epitome of a one-man act. Building songs from the ground up, this producer/band/turntablist put out beats, harmonies and lyrics that left the crowd stunned with jaws on the floor. A mix of originals and choice covers (including Warren G’s “Regulators”) had everyone’s head bobbing whether they knew it or not. An older couple appeared next to me and apprehensively took in the scene of beat-driven dancers, the array of tapers’ mics in front of the soundboard and the bombastic sounds coming from just a single man’s vocal chords. After a few wary looks around they slowly turned back to the bar to wait for the nice, calm jazz show they had come to see. They were in for an interesting night.
This was only the band’s second show since the April 14 release of their brand new studio album, Radiolarians II, the second in a three part series of recordings (Radiolarians I was released September, 2008), that broke away from the mold of write-record-tour, and saw the band approach their music with great improvisational creativity. Throughout 2008 the band gathered for brief writing sessions to build song structures, then immediately hit the road, performing and refining only the new material, followed by studio sessions to record the newly “written” tracks.
This idea of “live-writing” was definitely apparent this night as I repeatedly saw Medeski hold up a medley of fingers, directing the band on the spot through different chord changes. And there were numerous times when MMW quickly floated off into ambiance as the three performers made eye contact, only to drop back as one into a deeper and tighter groove than where they left off. About 45 minutes into the first set, the band was warmed up and launched into some fast, furious funk that harkened back to the roots of MMW – beat-driven with simple but chest thumping basslines from Chris Wood and crunchy, hair-raising screams on the Hammond organ from Medeski. This type of playing shows what I love about these guys, i.e. that they are jazz pros who have the ability to play the fastest, most avant-garde shit possible but they have the musical taste and understanding to play with a “less is more” prowess that speaks to everyone, rather than settling for finger-flashing, on-stage wanking. The crowd was having a lot of fun at this point and this song was definitely the fan favorite of the set.
About 40 minutes later the second set opened with an amazing treat for everyone in attendance. Unannounced and unexpected, the band retook the stage with a very special guest, the legendary B3 Hammond organ innovator of over five decades and a forefather of acid jazz, Dr. Lonnie Smith. Crossing the stage with cane in hand and head wrapped in a turban, Dr. Smith took his seat at the organ while Medeski switched to the piano. Despite his legendary status, Smith was obviously listening to the band and following them instead of trying to direct things. Medeski and Smith traded some tasty solos, both with smiles on their faces, and Wood intermittently leaned in to add his piece. Displaying his trademark body language, Smith appeared to be calling on the music gods above to come down and bless this gathering of music lovers, wringing his hands in the air and repeatedly grunting and clapping in rhythm to the delight of the crowd. After the song, the three MMW members embraced Dr. Smith as he left the stage and it was apparent the reverence and respect they all had for the man.
All in all this was a great night of music from moment one. The production at Trocaderos is top notch and the closeness of the fans to the artists is undeniable. The sound was great for a 1,200 person capacity room, and with support from local music companies (BB Organ supplied the Hammond rig, Schmitt Music brought a Steinway half-grand piano) the band sounded superb. I am always incredibly impressed by bands (a trio no less) without vocals that can draw large crowds that are completely immersed in the music. It is a testament to Medeski’s prowess as a lead “vocalist” on the keys, as well as to the forceful presence of Martin and Wood. These guys have delivered countless shows over their almost twenty-year existence and have never fallen into one category or become mired in their own self-definition. I was hoping to hear them expand the boundaries a little more at this show and push some jams in different directions, but they played to the situation while staying true to themselves. I approach every MMW show naively, thinking I know what to expect but every time leaving surprised with a sheepish grin on my face and a new appreciation for the group and their music.
MMW is on tour now, dates available here.
Continue reading for a few more pics of MMW in Minneapolis, MN…
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