The concept behind Medeski, Martin and Wood's Radiolarian Series
isn't wholly new to the forward-thinking trio. They spent the better part of a year or more playing pieces live that would come to comprise their Blue Note adieu, 2004's End of the World Party (Just in Case)
(2004). But this yearlong project involves a quicker turnaround from composing, to touring, and then to recording.
Like MMW's previous 2008 release, Zaebos: Book of Angels (Tzadik), Radiolarians 1 benefits from a straightforward production. It's easy to imagine the trio playing the eerie, appropriately titled opening, "First Light," onstage as the beginning of a showwhich, of course, is the Point, at least in part, of Radiolarians: to blur the line between live performance and recording session.
In doing so, the trio refuses to take the most expedient approach to the new material, merely reducing melodic and rhythmic ideaslike those of "Hidden Moon" and "Reliquary"to simplistic themes and capturing them digitally or on tape. Instead, having repeatedly tested a number like the aggressive "Cloud Wars" in the spontaneity of the concert milieu, MMW tests it further by extracting its superior components in a studio setting.
It is somewhat surprising to see most of this material credited to individual members rather than the trio. Only "Free Go Lilly" is a group composition and, perhaps, not so surprisingly, the funkiest thing on the disc. Equally familiar touch points, similar to that song's structure, surface throughout the course of Radiolarians' ten track/sixty-plus minute durationkeyboardist John Medeski's melodica turn within bassist Chris Wood's "Muchas Gracias" is only one of the most obvious.
Because Radiolarians I is only the first step in a process designed to revitalize MMW's music rather than reinvent it, it's arguable that this single CD carries sufficiently novelty for the band and its audience. It would provide a worthy intro to the group for those unacquainted with them, precisely because the band interweaves elements of every direction they've pursued over the years. By the time "Rolling Son" appears, and percussionist Billy Martin assumes role of navigator, Radiolarians I becomes more visceral than cerebral.
Yet it's impossible to ignore that this first disc of a projected three-part series is only a means to a greater end. To the extent that, like its successors, it stands on its own remains a future decision for the band, as does the question of whether or not they'll retain this material in their repertoire. In the short term, Radiolarians I is the means by which MMW ensures it neither falls into an over-familiar rut nor moves so far from its recognizable style, honed over the years, thus alienating or abandoning its fans or potential listeners.
The well-designed digipak and CD sleeve are overt signs that the trio is making the most of operating its own record label. Still, the self-determined push of its own creative envelope is the far more substantive act and much more than just a curiosity factor.