Seven Degrees of Combustication: Medeski Martin & Wood and Soulive In Concert
“ Medeski Martin & Wood are bent on exploring deep space while never ever letting go of the rhythm, while Soulive, expanded to a quintet with horns, are undergoing a maturing process for themselves that is a musical education for their audience. ”
Are there levels of funk? Is it one or the other: you're funky or you're not? Seeing these two trios in quick succession answers the questions, yet leaves the mystery of how funk quotient is actually attained a delightful conundrum.
At the midway point of a short tour of clubs this early winter, Medeski Martin & Wood had no problem delivering a punchy potent set at Pearl Street in Northampton. The leisurely way the trio amble on stage belies the intensity with which they play, individually and collectively, while also deceiving even the most knowing observer into missing how quickly the trio locks into a groove together: it took less than a minute in front of a wall to wall Massachusetts audience that greeted virtually every tune with joyous recognition.
And there were tunes to be played this night. In contrast to many shows earlier this year, including a run in Japan where MMW played wholly improvisational sets, on December 3rd you could hear a good cross section of selections from their newest Blue Note CD End of the World Party (to which Martin referred sardonically as he introduced the encore) as well as the welcome surprise of "Afro Blue." Either because of the set list or as a means of determining it, Chris Wood escalated his usual quota of electric bass, the sound of which instrument echoed fully and deeply off the crowd and the walls. His two extended solos on stand-up acoustic bass were virtually athletic exercises.
Medeski Martin & Wood have made a seemingly effortless reinvention of themselves since the watershed cd Combustication in 1998 as the effects of ambient noise have been intermixed with the beat-heavy approach by which the group excelled in their middle period. The curiosity with which Billy Martin uses exotic percussion instruments as well as his trap drum kit is the work of a musician bent on constantly rediscovering himself and the sounds he makes.
For his part, keyboardist John Medeski refrained from the manic heights to which he is often capable of ascending as he moves almost, but not quite, methodically around his bank of acoustic and electric instruments. At any given point in a performance, the rapidity which he so often injected into the mix jagged shards of noise, imbued with the body heat of groove, is as good a metaphor as any for the process by which Medeski Martin & Wood work; they are bent on exploring deep space while never ever letting go of the rhythm.
While some of those in attendance may have been unhappy with the comparative brevity of this set(it clocked in at around 1.5 hours total), it was nevertheless as much of a surpise as anything else MMW do in concert because they never do what you might expect. The same could be rightfully said of Soulive as they presented a non-stop extended performance, recorded for "Instant Live" purposes, at the newly-reopened Higher Ground venue in South Burlington on December 9th.
One of the most frequent visitors to this club in its previous location, the young trio is attracting an ever younger crowd these days and that's a good thing. It's been a long time since drummer Alan Evans, keyboardist Neal Evans and guitarist Eric Krasno posited themselves as a traditional jazz trioremember the suits and close cropped hair?and they way they are now stretching themselves and the r&b traditionalism added by a horn section is not only a maturing process for themselves but a musical education for their audience.
After the Sam Kininger Band opened the evening's festivities with a funk approach not unlike the headliners(he has played as part of Soulive often in the past and his music moves in the same rhythm not just so deeply), the saxophonist also joined in the extended grooves later laid down by the Soulive who were aided and abetted by saxman Ryan Zoidis and trumpeter Rashawn Ross. The extent to which Krasno took the spotlight and demonstrated his facility and versatility with his fretboard was indicative of how Soulive is operating at this point: syncopation provides the foundation to new songs such as "Reverb," in turn constituting jump-off points for extended jamming where the coloration of melody is almost as important as the variation of the groove.
Soulive would take a quantum leap forward, however, if Neal Evans would perform somewhat more adventurously with his keyboards. When he turns to the organ, he tends to hold notes for an uncomfortably long time, rather than toss off even a short series of spirited runs which would lend a traditional air to an ultra-contemporary sound buttressed by his Roland bass. Modifying the staccato attack he utilizes on his other electric instruments would bring Soulive into the rarefied atmosphere inhabited by Medeski, Martin & Wood: each of the latter three tremendously unique talents could conceivably lead a band of his own (and it's no small miracle that trio can coexist as they do).