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 recordsand 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."