One of the primary virtues of the Medeski, Martin and Wood partnership is the fluid means by which they conduct side projects as smoothly as they interact when they play together. Billy Martin's live percussion workshops may be less farther afield than keyboardist John Medeski's production of sacred steel band The Campbell Brothers, but they are no less conducive to keeping the MMW collaboration fresh than bassist Chris Wood's touring and recording Americana music with his brother Oliver.
Not surprisingly then, the long-delayed Martin/Medeski duet album Mago is a CD to be enjoyed on a number of levels. It's a respite from the increasingly arranged productions of the group albums (it hearkens directly to sessions like 1996's Gramavision release, Shack-man). It's an alternative organ-drums pairing to the now-heavily structured presentation of The Benevento/Russo Duo. And, most important of all, it's the inspired work of two musicians who thrive on being spontaneous.
To their credit, Martin and Medeski don't try to consciously fill the slot of the absent bassist Wood. The keyboardist's use of bass from his Hammond B-3 more than compensates on cuts like "Crustaceatron. The pair creates melodies, such as "Apology, that haunt just as fully as the beats ground the music. The freely played likes of "Introducing Mago and the aptly titled "L'Aventura bookend the CD with a joyful abandon familiar to listeners of MMW and impart just enough of a sense of logic and structure to Mago. It's clear Martin and Medeski have not totally forsaken form.
"Miss Teardrop finds Martin and Medeski alternating the tempo and the emphasis on rhythms versus melody, as they do throughout the CD. Relying largely on the relative brevity of the tracks, most of which run between three and five minutes, the interaction of the two thus holds your attention through the dozen cuts (including the bonus of a short and raw version of "Bamboo Pants ). Each constitutes an involved dialogue in and of itself, as well as the project as a whole.
While Mago hearkens back to the relative simplicity of earlier MMW works, the sound quality, though not overly polished, is up to their customary high standards. "Bamboo Pants includes a scratching segue from a decidedly old-school drum break, while "Bonfa renders moot the point of who's the leader here (notwithstanding Martin's upper billing; this is released on his own Amulet label).
Mago is a deceptively modest piece of work from Billy Martin and John Medeski, one of those CDs that wears well with repeated listenings precisely because its whole is far more than the sum of its parts.