My first exposure to the avant-garde jazz trio Medeski Martin and Wood (conveniently known as MMW) was at the State Palace Theater during a Jazz Fest weekend in 1999 New Orleans. MMW was still relatively new, but had the distinction of opening for Phish in 1995, which stamped them with the Phish scene imprimatur. Before the show, I didn’t know what to expect, other than that MMW was launched – kicking and screaming probably – into the periphery of the Phish orbit by wayward weekend jamband scenesters who didn’t know any better. Being a Phishhead, but a MMW neophyte, I struggled afterward to define the band’s improvisatory forays into jazz, funk, fusion, electronica, hip hop, and rock idioms, and finally surrendered by seeing it through the Phish prism. Perhaps I was suffering from the residual effects of that day’s Jazz Fest indulgences, but I settled on a woefully inadequate description of MMW sounding alot like “instrumental Phish on speed” that simply didn’t do the music justice.
At San Diego’s House of Blues this past Wednesday night, that confounding MMW sound still challenged me to describe the indescribable. But this time I’m older, more musically experienced, and hopefully better suited to appreciate MMW for all its distinctively unique nuances, improvisations, and exploratory grooves. This was, after all, the opening night of MMW’s national tour in support of their recent CD box set, “The Radiolarians: The Evolutionary Set.” And the band came armed-to-the-gills with an arsenal of various and sundry weapons to fight their musical jam battles. So even though the venue was reportedly only half-full, including a smattering of curious and surprisingly young (and annoyingly chatty) audience members who, like me in the old days, probably didn’t know what to expect, the die-hards warmly welcomed the trio’s opening, oftentimes meandering, improvisatory first several minutes. This searching, longing warm-up quest for a groove finally coalesced into the funky, almost zydeco-tinged “Sweet Pea Dreams,” a cut off one of the Radiolarians discs. And by the time John Medeski stepped away from his vast array of keyboards, which seemingly included organs, clavinets, pianos, and synthesizers, and blew through his melodica -- a fascinating blow organ that is part keyboard and part hookah -- the band had blasted into the far reaches of its experimental netherworld having finally found that groove. Drummer Billy Martin fired away on his own cache of ammunition -- from his small, humble drum kit, to an assortment of poly-ethnic IPDs, or improvised percussive devices, to coin a phrase, that surrounded him, including what appeared to be shakers, blocks, gongs, and bells – and delivered a healthy old-fashioned drum kit solo following “Big Time.”
The novices could be forgiven if they thought the musical explorations of the improv-laden first set seemingly lacked form and melody. But the true believers easily recognized the normal ebb and flow wending its way between the extemporaneous beats and jams and the more relatable, written pieces like the aforementioned “Sweet Pea Dreams” and “Back and Forth.” To all, however, there was no denying the sheer sonic assault emanating from these three top musicians on opening night. Even fans standing near the back of the floor could feel the sonic energy pulsating outward and into their bodies like a bass-infused heartbeat. The one hour first set ended on a high and familiar note, “Amber Gris,” probably one of the band’s best-received tunes of the night.
The second set opened to a crowd that had noticeably thinned. Many concert-goers, who apparently stayed just to continue their excuse to party, increased their chatty ways, sometimes brazenly talking over the music as if it was mere audio wallpaper. This was odd because the band’s second act seemed even more accessible, familiar and grounded in more-traditional jazz than the exploratory first half. The set built itself somewhat deliberately through various invocations to the groove. Bass extraordinaire Chris Wood rotated gamely between his stand up acoustic German bass and his two classic electric bass-guitars, shining throughout his various musical moments in the sun. The set found its climax in the raucous, uplifting “Cloud Wars” to end the set, and in “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” which only continued the good feelings into the encore.
A few of the knowledgeable acolytes described the show as a “mixed-bag.” In other words, it was a collection of tunes from MMW’s pre-2004 recording-hiatus, like “Big Time” and the blazing encore, and latter-day cuts off of the recent Radiolarian-era CDs. While some didn’t always seem to “get” the music during this night in laid back San Diego – or even understand what the musicians were trying to create or were searching for – MMW once again defied easy explanation just the same. In a word, they were as happily “indescribable” as they’ve always been. And true MMW fans probably wouldn’t have it any other way.
Set One: 1. Improv > 2. Sweet Pea Dreams > 3. Improv > 4. Back & Forth 5. Big Time > Drum Solo 6. Amber Gris 7. 'Billy speaks'
Set Two: 1. Walk Back > 2. Junkyard 3. Chantes Des Femmes 4. Chantes Des Femmes cont'd > Riffin' Ed 5. Bass Solo > Padrecito 6. Cloud Wars 7. 'Billy speaks / Encore break' 8. Mercy, Mercy, Mercy