John Medeski: Strong as Ever with MMW

R.J. DeLuke By

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The Medeski, Martin & Wood band, one that has amassed followers like a snowball rolling down a mountain of wet snow since its emergence on the scene over 18 years ago, is one of those exceptional organizations that doesn't stick to playing what might be expected by its audiences. They don't play it safe, instead choosing to explore sounds, grooves, genres as the spirit moves them. And 2009 saw the spirit moving them a great deal.

Also, unlike many groups that stay together a long time for music making, these three gentlemen like each other. They tour the world playing their music, changing it nightly, and doing it according to their own vision. After all this time, the group hasn't gotten stale. It was a particularly fertile year for MMW. For proof, Exhibit A is Radiolarians: The Evolutionary Set, released Dec. 8, 2009, by Indirecto Records (the band's own label). It's a collection of music developed through the course of the year, some of it released previously as Radiolarians I, II and III, but now available in one package and augmented with more musical accessories.

"It's almost like it was in the early days again," says John Medeski, the keyboardist whose skills blend so deftly with those of bassist Chris Woods and drummer Billy Martin. "That's what's so weird. After 18 years you think we wouldn't be talking to each other. But we're like family. We're friends. We get along. I think this past year, doing this Radiolarians project, we get along better than ever. It's really a very creative thing for us, to do the three records, write all the music. It was very inspiring, and re-connecting, for us, with what we're capable of doing."

The new package set compiles the Radiolarians music released individually during the year along with three previously unreleased bonus tracks. There's also a special edition, high-quality audio, double-vinyl pressing of highlights from the three Radiolarians albums.

More? Sure. There's a 10-track disc of remixed music featuring contributions from nine different DJs and producers.

Enough? No. Toss in a previously unreleased 70-minute live album of the new material, and then a Billy Martin-directed DVD feature film entitled "Fly In A Bottle." Filmed in the studio and on the road, it provides an intimate portrait of the band and its music.

The Radiolarians is expansive, the trio bringing in many influences in both their playing and writing. Different styles and grooves. It gets funky, ethereal, complicated and slick. The process involved the trio getting together for brief writing retreats, then performing only that new material on tour. Then recording it immediately after getting off the road. It occurred three times while touring in different regions of the United States and South America.

The Radiolarian moniker comes from a type of single-celled marine organism with a very intricate exoskeleton. German biologist Ernst Haeckel's drawings were featured on the covers of all three Radiolarians records—and were a visual inspiration for the trio's music throughout the project. Haeckel is credited with discovering and naming thousands of new species and popularizing the studies of Charles Darwin in Germany during the late 1800s.

"Sometimes we'd come up with ideas [individually], for other things we would create music together, which is something we have been doing for a long time," says Medeski. "It's easy for us. We created a night of music, then we would go out and do that for the whole tour. We would develop and work it out on the road ... Elements are open for improvisation so every night can be a little different. So, that's what we did. Every night would be a little different. It gave us the opportunity to develop, familiarize ourselves with a lot of aspects of the songs and where they could go, using a live audience for inspiration.

"So, we would come back and record. A couple days in the studio we'd do a very live recording. Our engineer who mixed the records, Dave Kent, is also the live engineer. So he got to hear the music for 10 days before [recording]. So everyone involved with the recording was very familiar with the music. We were able to go in and knock it off very quickly. Sort of a more jazz style. Be able to do it quick. Which was great."

Medeski says the process is fun and was a rare chance to get together just for writing. In previous cases, "because we have lives and do other projects, as a band we get together and do music when it's called for, [which means] when we're going to make a record, if we have a special project. For the past 10 years, we haven't just been getting together and writing songs just for the sake of it. We always have so many projects going and so many things going on that we, in general, have just done stuff that needed to be done."

But with Radiolarians, "This was a way of using our touring life as a reason to write this music. We sort of created the opportunity, basically. Created a way for us to do this. It's a way to keep things fresh, which we've always tried to do. There were definitely times years ago when we could have gone the more obvious route: the jam band-MMW-funky-groovy-easy-obvious selling route. Maybe we should have," he adds with a laugh. "We could all retire. But we didn't. We made a concerted effort to keep things fresh. That's who we are as individuals and musicians. We never would be happy, we certainly wouldn't still be together, had we done that."

Albums are still being made on vinyl, but its rare for a band of the status of MMW to do so. Simply put, they like the sound of the vinyl disks and people who still enjoy that medium will be more than pleased.

Medeski, Martin & Wood Left to right: Billy Martin, John Medeski and Chris Wood

"We've always loved vinyl. There are people always asking for it. Truth is, vinyl sales have gone up. It makes sense, because it is an incredible format. People are re-realizing it, and it tends to be people who have the means to buy the nice audiophile equipment," says Medeski. "There is nothing like it. If you're into it, you're into it. It's something you can't reproduce any other way. In truth, soon the downloadable technology is going to be as good or better than CDs. Right now, the MP3 thing is a complete disaster and drag, in my opinion. But that'll change. Eventually you'll be able to download super high resolution stuff. [Currently], they sound like shit. It's the worst element, the worst nightmare of what, sonically, digital music means. Especially if you compare it to a [vinyl] record. Put on a record and listen to it, then listen to an MP3. It's unbelievable. You listen to a record, you feel the music. You're in it. You put on MP3 and it's just kind of there.

"People argue digital is just as good. It's only barely getting to be just as good at the highest resolution. It will be eventually, because all the stuff is getting better. It's just a matter of figuring out how to make things go faster, and more, which they seem to be doing all the time. Soon, you'll be able to get high- resolution recordings digitally and downloadable. It's all going to be out there ... We've been recording at high resolution. Unfortunately, they don't come out on the CD that way but they go to the vinyl that way. When you hear it back that way [in the studio], it really does sound better. It's richer and there's a lot of dimension to it."

While many MMW fans have live concert tapes that they swap, the new live recording will show a different side to the music that was developed this year. "Because the music is open, every time we play these songs, it's different. Even now. So you can hear we're playing the same tune, but the solos are going to be different, the energy's going to be different. It's kind of a way to hear different versions of these tunes that we've codified on the records, to show what the other options are," says Medeski.

There's a lot more going on in the music of MMW, even though they were tossed into the "jam band" category years ago, as they played seamless sets that often glided from motif to motif, composition to composition. It wasn't unusual to have young people in tie-dye T-shirts—emblems of the Grateful Dead fans—at their shows dancing care-free to the music. Performing on bills with the rock band Phishbacher certainly added to the jam band reputation.

Admits Medeski, "We were so surprised to have been thrown into that [jam band] category. We call our music homeless music. If anybody asks us now what we call our music, that's what we call it: homeless music. I understand why we were embraced by that [jam band]) community. It's great. My mother always said, 'Don't bite the hand that feeds you.' We've had mixed feelings about it over the years, but you really can't pick your audience. And if you do, then maybe you're not being true to yourself. If you're going out of your way to attract a certain audience, then you're preconceiving your art. It's not really art then, is it? It's not really expression, it's entertainment. And we're really expressing ourselves. So whoever comes, comes. What are you gonna do? [laughs] What can we do about it? You gotta love it."

"In all honesty, sometimes it's great, but there are elements that are a drag. Sometimes we want to go certain places that sometimes an audience is not ready to go. We tend to go there anyway. Hard part is, you can feel what the crowd wants. Sometimes they just want you to do this thing that they hear all these other bands do, just be funky and play a thousand notes forever. But we can't do it. It's an endless balancing act."

The Radiolarian series is a way of keeping the music interesting and creative to Medeski, Martin and Wood themselves. Says the pianist, "The whole idea really is about creating a certain energy when you play. Playing music that helps you get to that place to create that energy. Create a certain space. That's what we're trying to do, we're trying to create that space. The way we do that is by being inspired and being excited. If we're playing the same old stuff all the time, we don't get there and if we don't get there 'it' doesn't get there. We want it to get there. That's another reason we tried doing it this way this year."

The project goal, that desire to produce something that is art, is surely a creative act. That is all the more glaring because, according to Medeski, making the three albums was "in all honesty, financially, a disaster. All the clubs we did were small club tours. We made three records at a time when nobody's buying CDs anyway. We definitely didn't do it as a commercial venture."

The real payoff is the music and where it has come from—an artistic aesthetic.

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