Medeski, Martin & Wood: Radiolarians - The Evolutionary Set
Radiolarians: The Evolutionary Set
Released over the last year, Medeski, Martin & Wood's three-part Radiolarians series bucked the longstanding and conventional trend of writing > recording > touring. Touring material before documenting it on record isn't exactly new, but few if any artists have done so with such an extensive repertoirethree hours of new material, all taken on the road and honed before MMW ever set foot in a recording studio to lay the tracks down.
That there's such a tremendous benefit to changing the model to writing > touring > recording only makes it all the more curious that artists don't make this the rule rather than the exception. It's one thing to write material, rehearse it and record it; another, entirely, to road-test the music in front of a live audience before recording. Based on audience feedback, it's possible to tell whether material is fine as-is, needs some rearrangement, or, in some cases, whether it will work at all. Progressive rocker King Crimson's ConstruKction of Light (DGM Live, 2000) is considered by most fans to be one of its weakest releases, yet after a year of touring, the live versions heard on Heavy ConstruKction (DGM Live, 2001) sound far better. After that tour, some of ConstruKction of Light's songs remained in its repertoire until the group dissolved in 2003, while others quickly disappeared from its set list. Perhaps Crimson should have toured the material first.
True, recording new material before it's been performed many timesin the opinion of some, too many timescan create a certain excitement in discovery, as the group finds its way around the music. But for groups like MMW, there's little risk of material becoming stale from overplaying. This is, after all, jazz, and this is, after all, MMWone of the first jazz groups to find its way into the nascent jam band scene of the early 1990s that also included more rock-centric groups like Phish, Widespread Panic and String Cheese Incident. Improvisation is fundamental, and keeping it fresh night-after-night is paramount for a group that, in its early days, spent weeks upon weeks on the road, traveling from one town to the next in a small van and performing with a hunger that has, somewhat incredibly, remained evident in 2009, nearly two decades later. Some things have changedMMW no longer tours as relentlessly as it did when it first emerged in the early 1990sbut many things remain the same.
Radiolarians: The Evolutionary Set collects all three Radiolarians discs, already reviewed by AAJ's resident jam band expert, Doug ColletteRadiolarians I (Indirecto, 2008), Radiolarians II (Indirecto, 2009), and Radiolarians III (Indirecto, 2009)into a lush, larger-than-life box set that's jam-packed with additional material: each of the three Radiolarians discs sports a bonus track not heard on the original release; there's a 70-minute live disc, Explorarians; a 45-minute disc of remixes, Remixolarians; a double-disc vinyl set featuring 10 of the Radiolarians' 32 songs; and, finally, a DVD that features, in addition to three music videos, a full-length documentary on the group, directed by MMW percussionist Billy Martin, Fly in a Bottle.
For the committed MMW fan, The Evolutionary Set is like manna from heaven; for the uninitiated, it's as good an introduction to the band as is likely to be found, demonstrating the group's monstrous groove power in so many contexts that it seems as though there's nothing this band can't do. As with many bands that exist for as long as MMW, Martin, keyboardist John Medeski and bassist Chris Woods have evolved considerably over the years, and while this box isn't a "Best Of" set, its collecting together of virtually all of MMW's multifaceted musical pursuits into one relatively compact place makes it a major addition to the group's discography. Fans will, no doubt, point to other individual albums as being better representations of the group's various approaches, but there's no single place where so many of MMW's interests are successfully consolidated. There's plenty to be found here: hints of electronica, rock, folk, boogie-woogie, punk, jazz-funk, world music, free improv and more, but all refracted through the trio's unique prism, one that turns even the simplest of musical ideas into a compelling ear-grabber through Medeski's use of vintage keyboard sonics, Woods' unshakable anchor and Martin's propulsive, behind-the-beat and decidedly phat kit.
The three expanded Radiolarians discs cover a wide swath of territory. There's the aggro of "Cloud Wars" and funky "Free Go Lilly," to the dark and slightly Thelonious Monk-ish "Baby Let Me Follow You Down." Wood's grungy bass drives "Flat Tires," while of "Amish Pintxos" heads into quirky soul territory and "Chantes Des Femmes" displays MMW at its most nightmarishly contrapuntal. Middle Eastern concerns drive "Kota," while "Jean's Scene" brings a Latin tinge to acoustic soul-jazz and "Broken Mirror" treads an odd line between cinematic Americana and visceral swing, featuring one of Medeski's most attention-grabbing organ solos of the entire box.
Most live albums demonstrate how much farther a group will take previously recorded material in a concert setting, and it's true that Explorarians' eight tracksall culled from the three Radiolarians discs with the exception of the disc's relentlessly funkified closer, "10 Minutes of Our Lives"are considerably longer than their studio cousins. But when the live material was recorded before the studio tracks, it serves to demonstrate how MMW actually hones its material in preparation for the studio. It's generally a given that solo space is reduced on studio recordings (though this is by no means an unmovable approach), and some of the material here is significantly expanded, in particular "Flat Tires," whose live length of over 10 minutes is ultimately compacted to a studio take of just over four. Woods' dirty bass is there, but in performance the trio takes over two minutes to get to the figure that opens the studio version like a shot across the bow. As the opener to the live disc it makes sense, as it replicates the sense of MMW starting in general freedom, only gradually finding its way to the song. But as a mid-disc piece, where it's positioned on Radiolarians II, it's far more appropriate to get straight down to business.
Remixes often demonstrate the power of the core material. 2009 has already seen a number of remarkable remix albums, ranging from Mungolian Jetset's We Gave It All Away...Now We Are Taking It Back (Smalltown Supersound, 2009) to Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble musical director Bill Ryan's remarkable exploration of Terry Riley's minimalist classic on In C Remixed (Innova, 2009). Add Remixolarians to the collection of elite remix albums for 2009, as Danny Blume reworks MMW's thunderous "Undone" into an even more rocking remix, complete with vocals. DJ Logic reduces "Flat Tires" to its essence, with some added beats and scratching giving it a curious retro-modern edge. Mister Rourke focuses on the pulse of "Chasen vs. Suribachi," reducing Medeski's contributions to texture, while the post-modern dub of Mat Young's remix of the same song leans further into electronica territory.
Despite the technology involved, remixes don't have to feel unnatural, and while sonic manipulation abounds in DJ Spooky's two remixes, they feel the most organic of the disc; his rework of "Free Go Lilly," sounding, in fact, even cleaner than the original.
With no copy of Fly in a Bottle provided to reviewers, the only source to go by is the five-minute trailer on YouTube. A combination of studio, performance and road footage, it appears to be the long overdue documentary about this enduring band. That Medeski, Martin & Wood has managed to stay together for nearly two decadeswith each member involved in a wealth of other projects that means they have more to bring back to the trio whenever it reconvenesis achievement enough. That the group has transcended early accusations of shtick and trendiness is even more significant. Every member of the group has evolved considerably since MMW's early daysand it was a groundbreaking group even then. Between the studio recordings, live set, remixes and video features, it may be called Radiolarians: The Evolutionary Set, but in truth, given where Medeski, Martin & Wood began and where the trio is now, it would be just as appropriate to call it The Revolutionary Set.
Tracks: CD1 (Radiolarians I): First Light; Cloud Wars; Muchas Gracias; Professor Nohair; Reliquary; Free Go Lily; Rolling Son; Sweet Pea Dreams; God Fire; Incantation (bonus track). CD2 (Radiolarians II): Flat Tires; Junkyard; Padrecito; ijiji; Riffin'; Amber Gris; Chasen vs. Suribachi; Dollar Pants; Amish Pintxos; Baby Let Me Follow You Down; Clifton (bonus track). CD3 (Radiolarians III): Chantes Des Femmes; Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down; Kota; Undone; Wonton; Walk Back; Jean's Scene; Broken Mirror; Gwyra Mi; Satan Part II (bonus track). CD4 (Explorarians): Chasen vs. Suribachi; Dollar Pants; Amish Pintxos; Walk Back; Junkyard; Gwyra Mi; Flat Tires; 10 Minutes of Our Lives. CD5 (Remixolarians): Undone (Undone D-Mix Remixed by Danny Blume); Flat Tires (Remixed by DJ Logic); Chasen vs. Suribachi (Produced by Mister Rourke); Kota (Remixed by Dan the Automator); Rolling Son (Remixed by DJ Olive); Free Go Lily (Remixed by DJ Spooky); Flat Tires (Remixed by DJ Spooky); Junkyard (Remixed by Scotty Hard); Chasen vs. Suribachi (Remixed by Mat Young, RPM); Reilquary (Qubti Mataraqah Produced by Mutamassik). DVD (Fly in a Bottle): Feature documentary, Fly in a Bottle, directed by Billy Martin: Video: , by Grey Gersten; Video: Ambergris, by Billy Martin; Video: CW, by Billy Martin. Double Vinyl LP Set: Disc I: Amber Gris; Amish Pintxos; Undone; Reliquary; Junkyard. Disc II: Chasen vs Suribachi; Walk Back; Free Go Lily; Hidden Moon; Padrecito.
Personnel: Billy Martin percussion,drums; video editing, directing; John Medeski: keyboards; Chris Wood: bass, guitar.