Medeski, Martin & Wood: 20
In an ongoing celebration of its twentieth anniversary, Medeski Martin & Wood released twenty original recordings in digital form over the course of 2011. Sequenced in the order in which the tracks were released, the collection as a whole flows with the expert pacing of an MMW performance and, in truth, with much the same artful pacing as their best studio albums, such as Combustication (Blue Note, 1999).
20 is just the most recent exercise in willful discipline on the part of this forward-thinking trio. The Radiolarians Series (Indirecto, 2008) imposed a strict timeline on the composition, performance and recording of self-composed material and 20 is much the same in terms of its execution, at least on the surface. As is customary with Medeski Martin & Wood, the group allows the music to speak on its own terms and so there is no explanatory sidebar offering particular insight into the sequence of events involved in the composition and recording of this material. Thus, at this point, it's impossible to know whether the group used freshly-composed tunes or reworked material left unused from time gone by, how quickly after "writing" the track was recorded or whether the tracks were ready to go in advance of release, on a monthly basis, beginning in March 2011.
Reflecting upon this project before and after listening prompts such questions, but in the midst of hearing the tracks unfold, it's difficult if not impossible to become immersed in the music itself (as perhaps MMW was when it embarked on the process). The arrangements as well as the improvisational interplay between the threesome starts out relatively simply with the porous likes of "Me2," governed by keyboardist John Medeski's organ, giving way to the more pronounced beat percussionist Billy Martin supplies underneath "Shackman." As with live performances, the moment bassist Chris Wood steps to the fore, as he does to introduce "Synesthesia," the group is warmed up and ready to kick into a high(er) gear.
Which is appropriate given the title of that tune. As if the missing link between Weather Report and Herbie Hancock's Headhunters, Medeski Martin & Wood draws from contemporary and traditional music across genres including jazz, funk, world music, hip-hop, rock and pop in such a way its respective batteries of instruments, and the mix of textures those afford on a track such as "Down on Me," morph into a real-time musical encyclopedia of the times.
Rhythm is as important as melody throughout this amalgamation, as evidence on "Tiznit Stomp," and the alternating emphasis on one aspect or the otherand often the fusion of the two elementsenlivens the musicians as they play. In turn, this spontaneity commands attention because surprises abound within each track. The duality also manifests itself in the incorporation of both acoustic and electric instruments as on "Seashack."
And over the course of the 20 tracks as well. "Make Room for Another," mixed by DJ Olive, is just the first juncture where Medeski, Martin & Wood slow the growing momentum of this music, giving itself and the listener time to ponder what has preceded in preparation for what is to follow. A temperate pace set by drums and bass overlays thick currents of Hammond B3 after which the trio for all intents and purposes begins again with "Last of a Kind; " here it conjures a sonic whirlwind, only to ascend to a higher and more intense level of musicianship by the time it skips brightly through "Doppler."
While only a few tracks of 20 exceed seven minutes, there's nevertheless a sense of the band expanding the material and stretching itself, albeit with no wasted motion or unnecessary inclusion of instrumental parts, even as the set of tracks ends with the contemplative "Illmoan. " "Floodwaters" is a more formal recapitulation, not a fiery finish, to be sure, but an effective one nonetheless and in keeping with this band's natural aversion to melodrama.
There was some talk Medeski, Martin & Wood planned to release 20 on vinyl in its entirety and certain that may still happen (the chance CDs will appear is scant as two would be necessary given the 105 minutes plus total running time). Still the availability of this music in MP3 and FLAC lossless files doesn't seriously undercut a sound quality that brings more than ample clarity to the recordings, no more or less so in the 16-bit masters of "Palo Santo" or "Stubborn Comfort."
For those music lovers who require a physical form to their sounds (and those who don't), MMW is simply challenging preconceptions in that regard, even as it challenges itself and its creative process with 20.
Tracks: Me2; Shackman; Synesthesia; Down On Me; Born On A Bus; Tiznit Stomp; Fuck You Guys (First Take); Box Car Lullabye; Make Room For Another (Mix By DJ Olive); Last Of A Kind (Mix By DJ Olive); Aquila The Hyun; Doppler; Silk; Stubborn Comfort; Sea Shack; Nuba; Palo Santo; Illmoan; Mean Irene; Floodwater.
Personnel: John Medeski: keyboards; Billy Martin: percussion; Chris Wood: basses.