Review, Photos & Videos: Medeski Martin & Wood Celebrate 25th Anniversary In Cleveland

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Words and Images by: Kelley Lauginiger

Medeski Martin & Wood :: 11.18.16
On Air Studios :: Cleveland, OH

As soon as Medeski Martin & Wood‘s 25th Anniversary shows were announced earlier this year, it was clear they would be really exciting. Coming together as three of today’s most fluent jazz-improv musicians to create a funky, eclectic mix of sound from across infinite genres and influences is already an incredible gift. But add in some masterful musicians as special guests and it makes last weekend’s double-header a really rare treat, especially in the Midwest. The energy was palpable as the small space inside Cleveland’s On Air Studio filled up about an hour before show time Friday, but to its charm, it never felt crowded. Nestled on the banks of the waterfront district known by locals as “The Flats,” the show was sold out and after a ticket re-release earlier that day, it seemed like everyone who wanted to attend got in.

The two Cleveland shows were filmed for future DVD release, with Friday being the first of five in celebration of the band’s quarter century career. The next three will take place at New York City’s Le Poisson Rouge, January 16 – 18, rescheduled from their original October dates due to the hospitalization and emergency surgery required by bass player Chris Wood. From all reports he is doing well, and he sounded great on stage.

On Friday’s first of two nights, there was a lot of mystery and positive expectations surrounding the show since it now kicked off the anniversary celebration. The regular lineup of keyboardist John Medeski, bassist Chris Wood and drummer Billy Martin peppered in guest appearances throughout the concert from Marc Ribot (guitar), Cyro Baptista (percussion), DJ Olive, and a horn section comprised of Steven Bernstein (trumpet), Brian Drye (trombone) and Briggan Krauss (saxes). The way they all shared the stage gracefully, rotating around on different tracks to create something enjoyable for every kind of music lover really defines who they are as musicians. They all were having a blast, with just as many smiles and nods exchanged as improv cues. It didn’t matter the lineup of guys on stage, they all flowed together as each if song was its own, mini concert, showcasing their different talents at peak times and playing moment by moment.

Three of the first four tracks were off 1996’s Shack-man as MMW led with opener “Henduck” into “Think,” and smoothly to the exception, “Last Chance to Dance Trance.” Welcoming up Baptista as their first guest of the evening, the two layers of percussion sided nicely with Medeski’s enveloping organ moans, and set a slightly darker tone coming out of the spritely track, “Think.” Laden with Clavinet, backed by upright bass and guided by more upbeat rhythms, Wood rotated back and forth using his fingers to pluck, and using a bow and/or drumstick to bend the strings and give that juxtaposed reverb that makes it sound like its a completely separate instrument altogether. One of the powers of live music is to see with our own eyes that one person is making a world of sound, using different techniques, then walking away with a new understanding of music, and maybe even the world around us. This turn into the fourth track was one of the highlights of the night as it broke open and set the tone for the rest of the evening.

As the band went into “Night Marchers,” Baptista remained, and DJ Olive joined in with some really nice samples and additions that gave the song flavor and texture you really just don’t hear often in the world of jazz. On top of Martin’s expert rhythms, Medeski’s own keyboard effects and Wood plucking along the electric bass, this track really got everyone dancing. The crowd’s reaction seemed to get the band going, as they started to let a bit more loose improvisationally, which just catapulted the room into a really explosive end of set across the next three tracks. Closing the set with a nod to King Sunny Adé’s “Mo Ti Mo,” with the horns section blasting and Baptista and DJ Olive still up in the mix, the crowd was going crazy as the trio took a short break and left the stage.

[Think | Captured by Nick Perry]

Screaming for more, dancing like passionate music lovers, varied in age from early 20s to well into 60s (maybe more), made up of all races and a pretty even split of genders, this crowd was not your typical jazz crowd, and again, I think that says a lot about Medeski Martin & Wood. They’re not your typical jazz band.

Returning back to the stage, I don’t think anyone expected eight more songs, but we definitely got them. Organically kicking off the second set with just the three original members on stage for 1995’s “The Lover,” Martin paved the way to a staccato freak-out jam that could have been inspired by “Drums” and “Space” in its rich, fullness, with some high-pitched B-3 soaring gospel-type frequencies by Medeski and backed by Wood’s hand-plucking bass. “The Lover” really started the set nicely and introduced the insane talent that is Marc Ribot on guitar for the next tracks, “Nocturne” and “Pappy Check.” “Nocturne” gave a grin to the drone-folks, the sound-band folks, the off-beat, no-wave crowd, and allowed for a deeper dive into the weird with DJ Olive and Ribot in addition to MMW on stage. But, “Pappy Check” brought the funk, for real. Ribot added in his own brand of playful jam to the already super-soulful breakdown, and it really was another highlight for me. Like a kid-sister to the classic jazz track, “Fever,” “Pappy” sneaks out at curfew and gets away with it.

[Night Marchers | Captured by Nick Perry]

The music flowed smoothly into 2002’s “I Wanna Ride You,” where they traded Ribot for Baptista and Medeski took the lead, really breaking into some funky bluesy territory and keeping the crowd dancing. The rest of the set included the horns, and showed off the band’s abilities to cover different ground. From the downtempo, slanky bass approach of “Nocturnal Transmission,” to the uptempo, sassy sounds of “Queen Bee,” this band can do it all. And throughout every style, Medeski leaves me wondering if he knows some sort of secret lyrics, or if mouthing syllables to the beat while he plays is just the manifestation of being totally badass, similar to the way David Byrne wrote all the lyrics in reverse to Speaking In Tongues. Watching him smash the keys makes me feel a certain way, but watching him make up his own syllable words is just a whole new level of woke. When you make your own kind of music, beauty follows, and Medeski Martin & Wood teach us that with each nuance they navigate, note by note, show by show, year by 25 years. They closed out the night with fan favorite, “Bubble House,” alongside DJ Olive and left it all on the stage. Aside from their immense musical wisdom, it seems impossible to me that they’ve been at it for 25 years, but perspective is everything.

During set break I met a couple who had been waiting 20 years to see MMW play. They explained that while raising their children they couldn’t travel often, but were big jazz fans, and now that they were almost 70 they could finally see their favorite band perform in their hometown of Cleveland. On paper, I’d guess that this couple and I couldn’t probably be more different, but we learned a lot from one another because music unites us all. We talked about the addition of the horns and how great they sounded, leading to discussion of famous trumpeter Chuck Mangione, a personal hero, as Billy Martin played drums with him years back. That’s how they heard of the band, in fact. This gave way to talk of Tom Waits, to Andy Borger, then Marco Benevento, and then back around to the Wood Brothers and their recent album, Paradise. Iggy Pop came up and of course John Zorn. All of these amazing musicians who just make it seem so effortless on stage, sharing their gifts with us and getting us through the ups and downs of life, while bringing us all together to celebrate their talents. That right there is the power of music.

I think that’s really what we were doing there in Cleveland last weekend, celebrating the power of music and the community of people that believe in the power of music. Medeski Martin & Wood are three of the biggest music lovers alive, and we’re really lucky for that, since they’re some of the most talented musicians alive as well. Their desire to explore and cultivate new territory under the umbrella of terminology we already understand like “jazz” and “funk,” help to pave the way for the future of expansive tunes by developing new sounds and an evolution of music that hasn’t even been defined yet. We need musicians like MMW to keep pushing the envelope so that we can do the same, and of course, dance maniacally like its a spiritual cleansing ceremony. To another 25! They are a truly an inspirational trio of men.

[Bubble House | Captured by Nick Perry]

Setlist

Medeski Martin & Wood at On Air Studio

  • Henduck
  • Think
  • Last Chance to Dance
  • Night Marchers  
  • Walk Back
  • Reliquary  
  • Moti Mo  
  • The Lover
  • Nocturne  
  • Pappy Check
  • I Wanna Ride You
  • Bemsha Swing / Lively Up Yourself  
  • Nocturnal Transmission  
  • Queen Bee
  • Bubblehouse