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Sound the Alarms: Medeski Martin & Wood at the 2019 NYC Winter Jazz Festival

Dave Kaufman BY

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The 2019 jazz fest season is upon us and I'm taking to this opportunity to look back at some of my best festival experiences over the course of the last year. The New York City Winter Jazzfest celebrated its 15th anniversary this past year (2019). I have been very fortunate to have attended 12 of them. It's never less than a great event with an astonishing lineup of stellar artists, including some of the biggest names in jazz as well as emerging artists who are offered a great platform to showcase their talents. My first concert of the fest was a performance by Medeski Martin & Wood (MMW) who were paired with a 20-piece Brooklyn-based Orchestra, Alarm Will Sound. They are essentially an avant-garde classical orchestra who have worked on a wide range of projects that cross genres throughout their 20-year history.

The event was held in Brooklyn Steel; a new venue smack dab in the middle of Brooklyn—well off the beaten path. I had some difficulty finding it and arrived a little late. The complex is a converted warehouse and is as nondescript and charmless from the exterior as you can imagine. It's a cavernous club with large floor space and offered no seating. When I arrived, I had to go through a metal detector and waited in a long line up to secure my pass. As a consequence, I missed my opportunity to shoot at the front of the stage—privileges extended for just the first three songs. Not a good start! Fortunately, the venue has a good selection of beer. I went out chilled for a bit, quaffed my beer, and then proceeded to the second floor to go to work. The second floor is a very narrow area that wraps around the back of the venue. But I was still able to get some decent shots.

Fortuitously, there was a second set, and I was able to set up in the front for three songs—probably about 30 to 40 minutes. The photographer's pit is incredibly shallow, and we were very close to the musicians at the front of the stage. Still, it provided me an excellent opportunity to get some closeup shots. I was standing in close proximity to John Medeski, who is a brilliant keyboard player. He played an astonishing 10-minute solo that was marked by incredible intensity, physicality, and virtuosity. Medeski seamlessly and effortlessly traverses a wide terrain of music from electronics to funky soul, sliding from organ to keyboard. It was one of the most astonishing solos I've ever witnessed. That alone was worth the price of admission. Billy Martin wailing on the drums and assorted percussive implements was also a sight to behold.

MMW and Alarm Will Sound collaborated on an album, Omnisphere, that was released last fall. They largely played music from that recording. Some songs featured only MMW and others only the orchestra. Of course, they also worked as an ensemble. I was unfamiliar with Alarm Will Sound but thought they were just brilliant. The music explored a wide range of textures and sounds from ambient to wildly cacophonous and atonal. Although they are clearly a classical orchestra, the ensemble is not limited in scope and not afraid to defy expectations. One of the violinists picked up an electric guitar and just wailed on this really "out" skronk-filled solo, and it was just great. MMW's music ranges from electronic-techno, free improvisation to hard funk and soul jazz. The music is often groove-filled and very soulful. Although my adventure got off to an inauspicious start, it turned into a wonderful evening of exhilarating music. I ended my evening by grabbing a slice of pizza at Carmines (one of Brooklyn's celebrated pizzerias), and all was well.
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