Wide open: That’s the phrase John Medeski uses to describe his bandmates’ musical sensibilities, the attitude he seeks in himself, and the spirit of musical adventure that Medeski Martin & Wood have pursued for two decades.
The trio’s amalgam of jazz, funk, “avant-noise” and a million other musical currents and impulses is nearly impossible to classify, which is just how they like it. Medeski’s keyboard excursions, Chris Wood’s hard-charging bass lines and Billy Martin’s supple, danceable beats have come to resemble a single organism, moving gracefully between genre-defying compositions and expansive improvisation atop a relentless groove.
Floridian Medeski had his first out-of-body experience playing a Mozart piano sonata as an adolescent. He soon began playing at every opportunity – from school musicals and talent shows to marching band, in which he served as a percussionist—and had his mind blown by an Oscar Peterson record. As a teen, he formed his own jazz-fusion trio and was invited to tour Japan by legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius. He made his way to the New England Conservatory of Music (NEC) and entered its boundary-pushing Third Stream department, which nurtured his improvisational impulses and encouraged him to find his own musical voice. He worked as a sideman in Boston and rediscovered roots music playing seven nights a week Mr. Jelly Belly.
California-born, Colorado-bred Wood, meanwhile, learned folk and blues songs at the feet of his musician/biologist dad and poet mom, swooned at the fearless innovations of Mingus and Monk, attended NEC and eventually studied with Geri Allen, Dave Holland and other luminaries. His apprenticeship with these powerful music figures was, he admits, a humbling one. “Sometimes my lesson would consist of me improvising for an hour with Geri watching,” he relates. “It was terrifying, because it exposed every weakness. But the more you accept who you are, the more free you are to express that. Your bag of tricks as a player becomes a doorway to infinite possibilities.”
Martin, who’d grown up in New York and New Jersey, imbibed a range of musical currents from his classical violinist father and Radio City Rockette mother, but it was his older brothers who first exposed him to rock and soul. He fell in love with Hendrix, James Brown, Sly Stone, Zappa and KISS and began bashing his uncle’s kit; soon he was in the jazz band at school, then at the preparatory division of the Manhattan School of Music. As a musical omnivore in New York City, he studied with assorted greats, mastered an array of percussion instruments, formed the samba band Batucada and played with everyone from jazz-pop superstar Chuck Mangione to Bill Frisell to New York’s avant-garde heroes the Lounge Lizards.