Medeski, Martin, and Wood

Elbo Room, October 27

Tradition is a perennial topic of debate among jazz musicians and listeners. Some wield their narrow definitions like clubs, seeking to drive off any who disagree. Others might argue for more inclusive interpretations as a way to legitimize their commercial enterprises (“smooth” jazz is an obvious example, but acid jazz too, despite some sincere efforts and a handful of good records, has capitalized on the jazz mystique without giving us much fresh, adventurous music). But music that builds in new and interesting ways on jazz’s substantial tradition resists being pigeonholed.

At first glance there’s nothing particularly unusual about the trio of John Medeski, Billy Martin, and Chris Wood, but few bands do a better job of confounding the categorizers, or seem to have as much fun doing it. Medeski’s frequent use of the Hammond organ–and his obvious affinity for it–has led to comparisons with the traditional jazz organ trio, but ultimately such comparisons fall short. His fearless plunges into noise tend to terrify, or at least alienate, the typical fan of jazz organists like Jimmy Smith and Richard “Groove” Holmes–but they’re indicative of the breadth of the group’s universe, where there’s room for Smith, Holmes, and Sun Ra. Much of the trio’s original music is built on funky bass vamps and the crackling backbeat of Martin’s drums, rather than the swinging four-four time that is the meat and potatoes of the standard jazz repertoire. While this may be off-putting to the crustier elements of the jazz world, it has attracted many fans raised on rock, soul, and funk, who apparently have an itch for improvised music that’s equally suitable for dancing or listening. (In a recent Downbeat interview, Medeski summed it up this way: “People in this country are dying for groove music that has an expansive quality, that gets into harmonies that you can’t necessarily sing when you’re doing the dishes.”) It’s probably Medeski, Martin, and Wood’s penchant for tunes based on simple though ingenious grooves that has sparked the occasional attempts, in the press and elsewhere, to fit them into the acid-jazz bag, though the spontaneity and energy of their typical set makes most acid jazz seem positively mechanical in comparison. The primary virtue of this trio is their ability to improvise in a variety of musical settings with sharp instincts, broad musical vocabulary, and virtuosity.

There was plenty of virtuosity on display Friday night in the sweaty, smoky, impossibly overcrowded confines of the Elbo Room. The group has put out a couple of great records in the past couple of years (It’s a Jungle in Here and Friday Afternoon in the Universe, both on Gramavision), but the recordings only hint at what the trio offer live.

The rhythm section may get people moving, but onstage Medeski’s the focal point. Switching feverishly between his three keyboards (organ, clavinet, and Wurlitzer electric piano–not a modern synthesizer in sight), he occasionally seems like a mad scientist at work in his lab, grabbing a fistful of chord on the organ with the left hand while slapping out a furious rhythmic accompaniment on the clavinet with the right, peppering an organ solo with some brittle, metallic chords from the Wurlitzer, or fiddling with the drawbars on the organ to fine-tune the swell of a single, harmonically dense chord. Medeski may be a classically trained pianist and can improvise in a straight-ahead jazz context with the best of them, but he doesn’t shy away from the noisemaking capabilities of his electric keyboards; in fact he revels in them, fishing around and often coming up with gold. Near the end of the set he makes a terrific racket with his roaring, climactic solo on “Chubb Sub” (from Friday Afternoon in the Universe), which wrings the last vestige of drama from the piece and the last drop of sweat from the crowd–the Hammond organ may be considered a technological dinosaur, but in the right hands it seems to be uniquely equipped for this sort of thing.

Martin and Wood comprise a remarkable and remarkably flexible rhythm team. Martin traded four-bar phrases with Medeski on an unnamed up-tempo swinger that was perhaps as close as the trio got to the purist’s definition of jazz, and Wood played an exhilarating, finger-popping solo on a funky blues. Martin and Wood didn’t solo much, but when they did they were often astonishing (as if maintaining a subtly varied and interesting groove wasn’t enough).

Of course, all this individual virtuosity might amount to nothing but flamboyant excess were it not for the group’s coherence and the fact that their virtuosity serves their music. Rather than examining jazz credentials, the more conservative elements of today’s jazz scene would do well to use their ears and be thankful for the invigorating presence of bands like Medeski, Martin, and Wood, who put their own, highly personal spin on the tradition every time they play.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Alan Martin.