Wide open: That’s the phrase John Medeski uses to describe his bandmates’ musical sensibilities, the attitude he seeks in himself, and the spirit of musical adventure that Medeski Martin & Wood have pursued for two decades.
The trio’s amalgam of jazz, funk, “avant-noise” and a million other musical currents and impulses is nearly impossible to classify, which is just how they like it. Medeski’s keyboard excursions, Chris Wood’s hard-charging bass lines and Billy Martin’s supple, danceable beats have come to resemble a single organism, moving gracefully between genre-defying compositions and expansive improvisation atop a relentless groove.
Floridian Medeski had his first out-of-body experience playing a Mozart piano sonata as an adolescent. He soon began playing at every opportunity – from school musicals and talent shows to marching band, in which he served as a percussionist—and had his mind blown by an Oscar Peterson record. As a teen, he formed his own jazz-fusion trio and was invited to tour Japan by legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius. He made his way to the New England Conservatory of Music (NEC) and entered its boundary-pushing Third Stream department, which nurtured his improvisational impulses and encouraged him to find his own musical voice. He worked as a sideman in Boston and rediscovered roots music playing seven nights a week Mr. Jelly Belly.
California-born, Colorado-bred Wood, meanwhile, learned folk and blues songs at the feet of his musician/biologist dad and poet mom, swooned at the fearless innovations of Mingus and Monk, attended NEC and eventually studied with Geri Allen, Dave Holland and other luminaries. His apprenticeship with these powerful music figures was, he admits, a humbling one. “Sometimes my lesson would consist of me improvising for an hour with Geri watching,” he relates. “It was terrifying, because it exposed every weakness. But the more you accept who you are, the more free you are to express that. Your bag of tricks as a player becomes a doorway to infinite possibilities.”
Martin, who’d grown up in New York and New Jersey, imbibed a range of musical currents from his classical violinist father and Radio City Rockette mother, but it was his older brothers who first exposed him to rock and soul. He fell in love with Hendrix, James Brown, Sly Stone, Zappa and KISS and began bashing his uncle’s kit; soon he was in the jazz band at school, then at the preparatory division of the Manhattan School of Music. As a musical omnivore in New York City, he studied with assorted greats, mastered an array of percussion instruments, formed the samba band Batucada and played with everyone from jazz-pop superstar Chuck Mangione to Bill Frisell to New York’s avant-garde heroes the Lounge Lizards.
What the three had in common before their band was a relationship with jazz mentor/drummer Bob Moses, who first brought his conservatory-trained protégés Medeski and Wood together for a session. “John was a madman,” Wood recalls. “He could drive the music, but it wasn’t about the limelight – just raw enthusiasm. He had a freer spirit than you find in most musicians. It was inspiring to be around.”
And Medeski’s first impression of the bassist? “He was a monster, a badass,” the keyboardist marvels. “He was technically so strong, and played with such energy. I felt a kinship with him, rhythmically and energetically. He was young and wide open, and could recall anything you taught him – he just has that kind of mind. I thought, ‘This guy’s a good resource.’”
The two soon found themselves in New York, where they shared an apartment; many hours of jamming, animated chatting about music and poring over the keyboardist’s vast record collection ensued.
The pair had moved to the city with the intention of becoming jazz sidemen, but what they encountered there altered their course. Their passion for jazz was undimmed, but they found the city’s jazz scene stifling – Medeski compares it to the classic zombie flick Night of the Living Dead – and gravitated instead to the freewheeling downtown art-music world. Populated by boundary-pushing creators of all stripes and hybrid forms, this loose-knit community inspired them. “Everybody was reaching for something new, drawing from every genre, looking for new sounds,” says Wood. “It was a high-risk situation; not everything worked. But when it did, it was beautiful.”
They also played a series of week-long engagements at the Village Gate with assorted drummers. While these gigs were rewarding, they still fell squarely within the parameters of “jazz.” – until they played with Billy Martin, about whom Moses had often raved. Medeski had jammed with the drummer before, finding his very un-jazzlike use of funk, hip-hop and Brazilian and African grooves bracing and – you guessed it – “wide open.” “I’d also seen him play live with his band Illy B,” he recalls. “He was really creative and he got all the girls dancing. I thought, ‘This guy’s got something.’”
Adds Wood, “Billy didn’t play jazz, but he improvised like a jazz player. It shifted things for me – he wouldn’t necessarily start swinging when I played a walking bass line. He brought the eighth-note feel that makes hip-hop and Brazilian beats so compatible with jazz, and he didn’t play like a drum machine; he was always playing interactively.”
“My spirit is all about experimenting,” Martin explains. “If I could just experiment and improvise 24 hours a day, I would be happy.”
When the three assembled at Martin’s Brooklyn pad for their first jam session, the chemistry was immediate and undeniable. “Billy started playing a beat. Chris started playing a bass line. I started playing. And it was instant music,” Medeski remembers, noting that his transcription of this, MMW’s first recorded flight, became the track “Uncle Chubb” on their first album. Martin joined them at their subsequent Village Gate sets, and they never looked back.
The trio still hadn’t chosen a name when they began booking gigs in jazz clubs; downtown godfather John Lurie gave them a shortlist, from which they selected the mad moniker Coltrane’s Wig. “We pissed off a lot of jazz-club owners with that,” Medeski volunteers, a little sheepishly. “They were like, ‘What is wrong with you?’” The name lasted through exactly one round of home-made press kits (created with the gear in the basement of Martin’s highly supportive dad). Much regional touring, notably in the southern U.S., followed. 1992 saw them release their debut album, Notes From Underground.
Though they started out with a more-or-less straightforward piano-bass-drums jazz setup, the threesome expanded their sound with unusual configurations. Medeski added electric piano (outfitted with distortion pedals and other effects), and began switching back and forth among Hammond organ, Clavinet, Mellotron and other keys. Wood alternated between stand-up and bass guitar, stuck paper behind his strings for a “snare” effect and occasionally employed a drumstick as a slide. Martin, who enjoys, in his words, “the whole pots and pans approach,” began keeping an international assortment of percussion instruments in his battery, as well as objects for banging that are not typically considered musical. “You need to be in touch with that feeling you had as a child when you listened to sound,” Medeski insists. “Everything going on around you is music. When you’re in touch with that, you can play from that deep place more easily – you can create music with real freedom and openness.”
Though the “jazz spirit,” as they like to call it, has been ever-present in their sonic voyages, Medeski Martin & Wood have won over a substantial audience that rarely responds to instrumental music, let alone a guitar-less trinity purveying an unholy blend of Jimmy Smith, György Ligeti and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. In fact, their club and festival appearances are packed with alternative-rock lovers as well as jam-band aficionados and jazz heads. “I blame Billy for that,” Medeski muses, hazarding that the drummer’s body-moving beats tend to disarm even the most pop-minded listeners. “Once they feel the groove he’s playing, I can get in there and infect their minds much more easily – and Chris can lay it down to keep them from losing it.”
The band’s onstage adventurousness sparked an experimental approach to recording as well – as on 1996’s solar-powered Shack-Man, recorded in a plywood shack amid the mango trees and plumerias on Hawaii’s big island (and featuring Martin’s artwork on its cover); the funked-out 1998 Blue Note disc Combustication, which enlisted two radically different engineers to create complementary sonic approaches; the acoustic live set Tonic (2000), recorded in New York, and its plugged-in twin, 2001’s Electric Tonic; 2004’s End of the World Party (Just in Case), produced by John King of the Dust Brothers; their two collaborations with guitarist John Scofield, A Go Go (1998) and Out Louder (2006, under the name Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood); the 2008 children’s record Let’s Go Everywhere; and the 2008-09 Radiolarian series, a trilogy of albums generated according to a strict policy of “Write > Tour > Record > Repeat,” as the band noted in an online announcement. They’ve also founded and run their own label, Indirecto.
MMW has also backed up a diverse roster of artists, including punk godfather Iggy Pop (both live and on his album Avenue B), R&B sax giant Maceo Parker, MacArthur Genius Grant recipient John Zorn and pop singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant.
The band members have also kept things fresh by pursuing scores of other projects. Medeski produced two albums by the Wood Brothers, Chris Wood’s rootsy partnership with his brother, Oliver, as well as work by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band; has played with a dazzling array of artists, including The Word with Robert Randolph, Ray LaMontagne, The Blind Boys of Alabama, John Zorn, Trey Anastasio, Susana Baca and the rock band Grizzly Adamz; fronted his own band, John Medeski & The Itch; and performed as a solo pianist. He and Martin have also performed and recorded as the duo Mago. Martin, for his part, has recorded several solo discs and an album of breakbeats (under his own name and as Illy B), collaborated with DJ Logic, DJ Spooky, Dave Burrell and other artists, authored a book, pursued his own visual art, and produced and directed Fly in a Bottle, a feature-length documentary film about the making of the Radiolarian series. The Wood Brothers have released three LPs and an EP of cover songs and toured with the likes of Zac Brown Band, Levon Helm, Bruce Hornsby & The Noisemakers and k.d, Lang.
The three also conduct a yearly musical retreat, Camp MMW, in the Catskills; with music classes, seminars, films, guest teachers and jam sessions, the August gathering encourages promising musicians of all stripes to get out of their comfort zones.
Their reflections on having reached the extraordinary milestone of playing together for some 20 years? “We’re old motherfuckers, man,” Medeski replies with a laugh, adding, “We’re in a really good place. We’ve been writing a lot of new music. We always want to create a certain vibration in the evening – if we’re doing something new and feeling the excitement, that’ll do it.”
“I think we’ll be reflecting on the anniversary a lot, pulling out old material and approaching it in new ways,” ventures Wood. “We’re always growing and changing, and the fact that we’re always doing stuff with other people keeps it alive, because we bring fresh energy to the group.”
“Musically, we’re changing all the time,” Martin asserts, adding that the band’s constant improvisation produces moments when “We look at each other like, ‘Oh my God, how in the hell did we just decide to do that?’ We look at each other with our mouths open sometimes, and that’s the beautiful thing about it.”
“This band is each of us expressing who we really are,” summarizes Medeski. “That’s all.”
And so Medeski Martin & Wood enter their third decade together, as wide open as ever.