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Combustication is neither as good nor as bad as promised. Now that the trio of keyboardist John Medeski, drummer / percussionist Billy Martin and bassist Chris Wood have become the equivalent of jazz superstars and their concerts are increasingly attended like Grateful Dead shows, they probably can do little wrong and even less right.
But as is often the case, Combustication goes for broke – trying to please both divisions of old fans (groovers and freedom-seekers) and aiming to win over new fans. Heck, Blue Note sure spent a fortune on Combustication 's kewl cut-out, fold-out cover art. So you know they're betting heavily on these guys.
First of all, so you know where I'm coming from, Combustication is an improvement on the group's 1996 Gramavision breakthrough, Shackman and the dreadfully annoying club hit, "Bubblehouse." But, unfortunately, not enough of Combustication reaches the heights the trio scaled with John Scofield on this year's earlier A Go Go (Verve).
Obviously, that puts me in the grooveyard, cutting the grass with "Sugar Craft," (the brief but great) "Hey-Hee-Hi-Ho," "Coconut Boogaloo" (featuring Medeski on the retro-fave Wurlitzer) and "Church of Logic."
Other highlights include the unusual bebop meditation / rap "Whatever Happened To Gus," the moody "Nocturne," the rather indescribable "Hypnotized" (which continues for seven minutes after the packaging indicates) and the nice, slowed-down gospel groove of the Toyota (er, ah Sly and the Family Stone) song, "Everyday People."
There's less of the out-and-out here, which may dismay fans of MMW's totally free, private-label release, Farmers Reserve. But to keep things interesting (and possibly sales-worthy), someone named D.J. Logic adds unnecessary turntable effects on "Sugar Craft, "Church of Logic" and, most annoyingly, on the insanity-prompting "Start-Stop."
What leaves the greatest impression, though, is not the stylistic map these guys cover (and it is topographical), but John Medeski's fascinating work on piano ("Just Like I Pictured It" and especially "Latin Shuffle") – a wild mix of Cecil, Monk, Brubeck, Danilo Perez and probably another few dozen who haven't occurred to me yet. Medeski has an incredible right-left facility and his flights up and down the keys never lose you, always sustaining a logical interest. A MMW piano trio record would sure be interesting.
A Go Go points out what might have made Combustication better, though. MMW is a brilliant, highly creative rhythm team that probably needs a good leader to provide the focus and direction to produce a cohesive whole, worthy of their individual talents. Whichever groove they opt for (and who should limit them?) is irrelevant. They can do anything.
With MMW, it's easy to wish for dream pairs. But that would require the return of Miles, Bird or Coltrane. Can you picture the sound? After Scofield, who's left alive that's up to the challenge? Who's worthy of MMW? Combustication only scratches the surface.
Personnel: John Medeski: keyboards; Billy Martin: drums, percussion; Chris Wood: basses, bass drum; D.J. Logic: turntables; Steve Cannon: spoken word ("Whatever Happened To Gus").
Tracks:Sugar Craft; Just Like I Pictured It; Start-Stop; Nocturne; Hey-Hee-Hi-Ho; Whatever Happened To Gus; Latin Shuffle; Everyday People; Coconut Boogaloo; Church of Logic; No Ke Ano Ahaihi; Hypnotized.
I love jazz because anything is possible; it has few rules and the best jazz breaks those ones. I prefer free improv because it doesn't really have any rules at all.
I was first exposed to jazz in my teens (in the late sixties).
The first jazz record I bought was Filles de Kilimanjaro by Miles Davis, shortly followed by Extrapolation by John McLaughlin.
My advice to new listeners is to listen as widely as possible and not to make snap judgments--stick with it.