Medeski Martin & Wood Higher Ground
South Burlington, Vermont
February 21, 2008
Having launched their own record label, Indirecto, so auspiciously in 2007 with a reunion session with John Scofield, Out Louder, Medeski Martin and Wood are taking the next logical step of independent artists in charge of their own business: marrying as closely as possible the art of making music at its most ambitious with the distribution of it as close to fruition as possible in real time.
Preparing for the release of three separate albums of original material during the course of the year (these in addition to their children's album Let's Go Everywhere (Little Monster Records), the trio plans to prepare new self-composed material prior to their tours, fine-tune it on stage, then immediately record that same material upon completion of the tour. It's a means of mixing their savvy spontaneity on stage with the artistry they've nurtured in the recording studio.
This process challenges Medeski Martin and Wood themselves as well as their audience. But the band offers a compromise of sorts, at least based on this Vermont appearance: the music is vividly reminiscent of their early defining works such as Shackman (Gramavision,1995) and Friday Afternoon in the Universe (Gramavision,1996). The rhythmic pulse remains as John Medeski moves from acoustic piano (where he spent an increasingly long time as the two sets progressed) to the organ and clavinet, maintaining his idiosyncratic style on each instrument (worth a double take to see him apparently reading music as he intro'd the second tune of the night!?). The keyboardist further seasoned the sound with melodica and synthesizer, but there's still the chance what the trio is doing now may be criticized as treading all too familiar ground.
Yet there's a refreshing simplicity to this new MMW music, deriving as much from the calm assurance of a group that's now been playing together for close to fifteen years as from the conscious approach of stripping down the sound to its basics. Consequently, this comparatively more structured approacha half dozen tunes within approximately an hour and a halfmay be as interesting as one of their set-long improvisations, though perhaps not so to those who prefer the abstract to the earthy.
The easygoing approach gave way to a more aggressive slant as the threesome returned to the stage, introduced by way of Medeski's launching of sheets of sonically jagged electronics at the audience, followed shortly by a driving interlude the likes of which Medeski Martin and Wood hadn't engaged in yet; here the lack of bass resonance in the sound mix became all too apparent (Chris Wood was thrumming and sawing away with his usual muscular might) while Billy Martin might've taken more drum breaks or engaged in some exploration of his various percussion devices: perhaps the threesome drumming together at the beginning of the set was a substitute for that, but Martin did nevertheless remind us of his great touch and the technique at his command when he was given a moment to work out on his kit.
Decidedly reminiscent of Medeski Martin & Wood's Blue Note debut Combustication (1998), the latter half of the performance was an example of expert pacing as the ebb and flow of sound came to a logical conclusion on the closer, a perfect cross between Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground and Jimi Hendrix' "Third Stone From the Sun. If that combination sounded familiar to the sold-out crowd, it only enlivened them further so that as the trio returned for a quick encore, brandishing their instruments (Wood on electric bass for the first time since the beginning of the night), the room's atmosphere had heated up to an absolutely feverish intensity.
It may be some time before the trio play a genuinely great set with this new material, but early in the winter tour at Higher Ground, they probably couldn't have had more fun with it. MMW may not have been hawking their newly-released kids' album very hard, but they nonetheless brought out the inner (dancing) child in themselves and most everyone in the club this mid-winter evening.