By Mike Finkelstein
As the Medeski, Martin, and Wood show started at Royce Hall Friday night you got the feeling that the audience wasn’t just dropping in. The balcony was open and there was a good vibe of anticipation in the hall. People were ready for this.
Medeski, Martin, and Wood are a New York based trio specializing in nuanced jamming. MMW describe each other’s musical approach and abilities as “wide open” and they don’t usually gig on the West Coast, so this was an opportunity for them to reach an audience that was clearly hoping they’d get here. The band is known for their crafty sense of improvisation, and on Friday we got to see both an acoustic first- and electric closing-set from them. The term acoustic applied mostly to keyboardist John Medeski, who sat at a grand piano with his back turned to the audience for nearly the whole first set. Bassist Chris Wood and drummer/percussionist Billy Martin played the same instruments for both sets.
The first set was comparatively touchy-feely to the more focused and arranged second one. The night began with a tasty bit of tuning, tinkering, and noodling that jelled beautifully. As the set progressed, every moment was nudged along in turn by each of them. Each idea had a connection to the next. Sounds churned, jiggled, crashed, lunged, and rumbled quite often. Sometimes it was dissonant, but not for long and it always led to something interesting.
The three guys approached the improvisation in the music much like jazz players, constantly playing off of each other, but it was apparent from the beginning that they also drew from progressive rock, blues, and spur of the moment curiosity. In Martin’s words, “The more you accept who you are, the more free you are to express that.” MMW never did let any one idea linger long enough to spoil, they just kept cycling in new lines.
As their material doesn’t have any vocals, they welcomed the challenge of keeping the music engaging, and each of the three had a wide range of tools to vary his sound. Billy Martin had a couple of tables worth of hand percussion, whistles, small vibraphones, bags of bones, etc to satisfy any whim he might feel like following, as well as what seemed like a skillet or two hanging from his kit.
Chris Wood played beautifully on bass all night and he did have several diversions to spiff up his sound, too. He actually played slide bass at several points during the second set and showed us a very cool effect by bowing a drumstick on the bridge of the bass…it sounded like a bit like a theremin. He also had a very busy technique where he would get mostly harmonic sounds by tickling the strings as he bowed them. He played through delays and fuzzes, too.
Near the end of the first set Medeski brought out a tall thin wooden wind instrument, resembling a didgeridoo if only in appearance. Martin identified it later as a pujama (fujama?) but it shall remain a mystery for now. To play it, Medeski had to hold it from waist high to considerably above his head and as he held it arms down and blew on the mouthpiece, well, it looked a bit like some involved kissing was going on. Strange. Then he split it apart and played the top half horizontally. It squealed a lot and hand placement controlled the dynamics. Still strange.
For the second set Medeski rotated between several keyboard setups but used a Hammond organ and a clavinet most of the time. The rich, swirling Hammond sound is so recognizable that it made the band seem a little less out there than they had been for the first set. Wood played mostly on a Hofner electric bass but still kept his rotation with the acoustic stand-up going throughout. At times he would turn the big bass towards Medeski and groove off him. Other times, he would chew up the runs, and at still other times he would clearly lay back and savor the tone of the big bass notes. You could see that he pretty much wore the groove on his face, as did Martin.
Martin is a hard hitter but with a wide range of approaches. He could be very light with the hand percussion and clearly thinking on the fly. He doesn’t play with the classic light touch of jazz drummers but he was still both subtle and able to really let if fly in the heavy patches. For him it’s all about improvising. Drumming on anything available. Primal. Like a child wanting to know what it will sound like if he drums on it. Sometimes he would stand up to accentuate a cymbal stroke. It only seemed as though he was tweaking a large machine.
In a trio format, everyone has a lot of musical ground to cover. No body stayed in any one pocket for very long Friday night. MMW take a very open eared approach to everything they do. They listen to each other very alertly and make the effort to react to the subtleties and dynamics of the moment. We saw changes in one idea ripple through the band like water waves. All night, the sound morphed into something new.
The evening ended with a slow, haunting, mesmerizingly beautiful piece of music called, I believe, “Dracula.” It sounded nothing like the beginning of the evening but it had us in a trance. The interplay between the keys and bass was so seductively spooky. And this tune had the softest landing you could want, too. Medeski played only a pianica, Wood grooved in slow mode on the long notes and Martin kept it light. They really did set it down to rest pretty. I wouldn’t have expected anything less.
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