Master improvisers that they are, Medeski, Martin and Wood nevertheless do nothing without purpose. Their participation in John Zorn's Masada Series is just such a decisive action.
Zaebos: The Book of Angels Vol. 11 was recorded in January and March of 2008, just prior to MMW's announcement of its year-long project dubbed "The Radiolarian Series" (whereby the group would compose, play live, then record three different batches of new original material). Thus, to take part in Zorn's exploration of his musical heritage, while not wholly unlike what the trio does on its own, nevertheless affords a certain healthy detachment from a musical endeavor, before becoming immersed wholly in an ambitious one of its own.
Introduced by an unusually aggressive burst of Billy Martin's drums, then rumbling bass from Chris Wood, John Medeski enters the fray on "Zagzagel" with a squalling electric keyboard. It's as if the trio is freed from the expectations of its own music and its own audience, and happily succumbs to a desire to break free on its own terms. To luxuriate in the exotic tranquility of "Sefrial," its vaguely Eastern melody line floating like a smoke ring while the rhythm section hypnotizes, is just such a sublime moment.
Not surprisingly, Zaebos ebbs and flows like a high-quality MMW live set, including customary drum breaks like the one on "Ahaii" that, as usual, thrust the group further into its own momentum. Having simmered a time, the music reaches a boiling point on "Rifion," before the band brings it back to a median heat. They proceed to cook in tandem, with keyboards (primarily organ) intersecting with rim shots and taut bass lines.
The faint whisper of percussion on "Chafriel" slips into an enticing mini-groove accentuated with electric piano, while "Vianuel" finds the trio twisting and turning, yet always moving forwarda description of its career path if there ever was one. This is the free thinking and playing that brought the trio into John Zorn's Masada family back in the formative early 1990s. It's remarkable that their imagination remains vigorous and ripe with ideas, after some twenty years at work together, and on solo jaunts that no doubt enliven their own three-way chemistry.
Medeski, Martin and Wood push the envelope of avant-garde, yet it's their grasp of jazz traditionalism, on exhibit within the acoustic piano intervals here, that sets their adventurous streak in sharp relief. Heady as this music is, the band itself sounds free and loose, even at a low volume. "Jeudthun" seems a non sequitur, but also reminds how this album, unlike End of the World Party (Just in Case) (Blue Note, 2004), is comparatively free of treatments and production effects. That said, is that really a bowed double-bass on "Malach Ha-sopher"?
And does this fairly standard-length CD have a killer ending on "Tutrusa'i"? The fairly formless motif takes shape as an after-hours club theme song, its ruminations anything but sentimental and soft. Instead, it's pointed and quietly propulsive and progressiveanother microcosm of the MMW oeuvre.
Zagzagel; Sefrial; Agmatia; Rifion; Chafriel; Ahaij; Asaliah; Vianuel; Jeduthun; Malach ha-Sopher; Tutrusa'i.
John Medeski: keyboards; Chris Wood: bass; Billy Martin: drums.