In 1989 organist John Medeski joined percussionist Billy Martin in his Brooklyn loft for a jam session that became the genesis for the groove institution known as MMW. Together with bassist Chris Wood, Medeski, Martin & Wood has become one of the most successful cross-over stories in all of modern jazz.
Medeski and Martin vowed to record as a duo one day, and Mago is the result. Stripped down to core essentials, Martin eschews additional percussion in favor of a traditional trap set, while Medeski sticks to his trusty Hammond B-3 organ. Without Chris Wood to fill the bottom end, Medeski uses his Hammond's bass pedals as they were intended, playing funky ostinatos and modal grooves with precision and drive.
Chris Wood's inventive bass textures, witty turns of phrase and subtle rhythmic counterpoint are sometimes sorely missed. To their credit, Martin and Medeski approach this familiar material from a more primal vantage point by reducing their usual trio interaction to a two-part dialogue. Reflective of this stripped down aesthetic, the funk is more straightforward and the free-form selections more frenetic and pulse driven. Although the subtle, three-way conversational interaction that forms the best of MMW's improvisations is lost in the duo format, the pair makes up for it with a healthy dose of outside collaboration.
Employing Danny Blume (one half of the production team of Good and Evil) behind the mixing board helps expand the duo's sound. Blume uses compression, distortion, stereo-pans and other subtle sci-fi EFX wizardry to transform the duo's raw material into a gritty electronic hybrid. Adopting the sonic framework of drum-n-bass, IDM and underground hip-hop, Blume's knob-twiddling keeps pace with the sounds of the street.
The majority of the session is a surging cauldron of infectious beats and driving vamps. "Bamboo Pants" and "Bonfa" bring the funk with a modernist twist. "Apology" and "Miss Teardrop" invoke the spirit of the blues with soulful testimonials, while "Mojet" updates the classic Meters sound with ebullient phrasing. Journeying further out, "Crustaceatron" blends raw hip-hop rhythms with ominous dread, "Thundercloud" billows over with nervous electric energy and "Safak" conjures the mystical moods of Sun Ra. Book-ending the album, "Introducing Mago" and "L'Aventura," reveal the duo's edgy outré side, forging headlong into manic free bop with frenzied glee.
Even without Chris Wood, Billy Martin and John Medeski make a joyful noise; Mago could end up being the jazz party record of the summer.
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