Since its inception in 1991, when they played their first gig together under the tony lawfirmish moniker of Medeski Martin & Wood (at the historic Village Gate in New York City), t his talented triumvirate has demonstrated an uncommon chemistry on the bandstand along with an almost unquenchable desire to play strictly on the improvisational edge and in the moment. As Rolling Stone's David Fricke once urged readers, "Go out on a limb with them; you'll always find a reason to dance".
It's no surprise, then, that the unorthodox trio built up a cult following - through tireless road work during the early 90's (as many as 200 dates a year)- comprised of Phish fans, Deadheads, and assorted neo-hippies who flocked to their cause, galvanized by the group's irrepressible groove-power and intrigued by the band's willingness to push the envelope to heightened levels on a nightly basis.
After documenting their signature amalgam of funk, jazz, avantgarde, hip-hop, neo-punk, and improvisatory expansiveness on their ambitious, self-produced 1992 debut, Notes from the Underground (on the independent Hap-Jones label), Medeski Martin & Wood were signed by Gramavision Records and began developing a wider audience on the strength of three potent offerings in 1993's It's a Jungle in Here, 1994's Friday Afternoon in the Universe, and 1996's Shack Man (recorded entirely in the remote jungles of Hawaii in their jam parlor affectionately known as "The Shack").
Critics pegged them as walking a fine line between Weather Report and the Meters. Josef Woodard in Jazziz called them "groove merchants of a new-old order", a reference to their reverence for the organ trio tradition and their simultaneous eagerness to push the music forward into the great beyond. Boston Globe critic Bob Blumenthal called them "too audacious to be mere fusion, too infectious to be overlooked".
After signing in November 1997 with Blue Note, a label that afforded them a higher profile and came with an incredibly rich legacy to boot. Medeski Martin & Wood continued to pull no punches in its pursuit of pure, spontaneous artistic expression. Indeed, their first album for the label, 1998's Combustication, was almost defiantly umcompromising in its overall scope. While another band in that same position might have gone for something a bit more accessible on its first offering out of the gate with a new label (and one so conspicuosly associated with the hallowed jazz tradition, no less), Medeski Martin & Wood pushed the envelope with subversive glee on that edgy experiment in nasty tonalities, reveling in the resultant outburst of creative energy.
"Sugar Craft" from that initial Blue Note outing is grounded by Chris Wood's minimalist groove-anchor on electric bass and fueled by Billy Martin's slyly syncopated, Clyde Stubblefield/Jabbo Starks-informed funky drummer backbeats. Keyboardist John Medeski works his own funky magic on top of that popping undercurrent with grunge-toned Hammond B3 organ while turntablist DJ Logic (Jason Kibler) layers on provocative little ear cookies and wacky funhouse screams that dance in and out of the boogaloo mix. As Martin noted of Logic, an honorary Medeski Martin & Wood member who toured with the band that year: "He's a quintessential musician. He's always looking for sounds, rhythms, and textures. His personality comes right through, you can hear it".
Wood's melodic electric bass lines open the spacious and moody "Nocturne", a chamber-like piece from Combustication that unfolds with the meditative calm of a Chopin nocturne (with some characteristic Medeski Martin & Wood tweakage along the way). Medeski's solovox can be heard fluttering in the mix, alternating with ethereal strains from a mellotron as Martin underscores the textures with subtle brushwork and some coloristic playing on the kit. The other piece here from Combustication is the shuffling groover "Hypnotized", in which Medeski dials up some of his sickest, most severely effected, wah-wah inflected, ring-moduled organ tones while also underscoring the dissonant proceedings with some soulful Les McCann-styled comping on a warm-tuned Wurlitzer piano. And "Hey-Hee-Hi-Ho" (heard here in its illy B remix form) is an infectious dancefloor number of a funky clavinet and Meters-inspired organ riffs. Martin also engages in a spirited percussion jam on this number which harkens back to his street samba work with Brazilian ensembles like Pei De Boi and Batacuda.
For their follow-up, Medeski Martin & Wood documented an extended all-acoustic engagement at Tonic, New York's premier venue for alternative jazz and edgy experimentalism located on the Lower East Side. The solo tune culled here from that organic session, "Hey Joe", was written by W.M. Roberts bt later transformed into an emotionally-charged, anthemic ballad by Jimi Hendrix on his landmark debut. It's handled here with zen-like restrained and crystalline delicacy by Medeski on piano, Wood on the doublebass, and Martin adding a sensitive, supportive touch on the kit.
Medeski Martin & Wood returned to its improvisatory, groove-oriented agenda with 2000's The Dropper, an expansive exercise in sonic extremism which was co-produced by Scotty Hard (Scott Harding), whose credits included engineering hip-hop sessions for the likes of Wu-Tang Clan, PM Dawn, and Kool Keith. On the album's title track, keyboardist Medeski, and guitarist Marc Ribot exchange ambient-noise statements in the foreground while Wood holds the center with funky, muted electric basslines coming out of the great tradition of James Brown bassists like Charles Sherrell, Bernard Odum, and Bootsy Collins. The party groover "Partido Alto" opens with Medeski on piano before he switches to burning Jimmy Smith organ mode and finishes with some soulful piano flourishes. Wood covers the bottom on electric bass while Martin works more infectious samba drumming into the fabric of this funky vamp. Medeski's composition "Note Bleu" (title track for this Blue Note retrospective) is a bouyant bossa featuring his bluesy wailing on organ, augmented by rich chordal voicing from guest guitarist Marc Ribot.
Following the critical success of The Dropper, Medeski Martin & Wood pushed the envelope even further on 2002's Uninvisible, a Scotty Hard production which combined horns and turntables with a futuristic groove-oriented twist. That landmark offering is represented here by four tunes. Medeski's "I Wanna Ride You" is an insistent boogaloo with a gospel-soaked intro that showcases the organist wailing in a funky Jimmy McGriff vein. The soulful groove "Pappy Check" features some slick turntable scratching from special gues DJ P Love while the powerfully dissonant "Off the Table" includes DJ Olive's verité sounds of a ping-pong match in the background. And the aggressively grooving title track is brimming with James Brown-styled grooves, Meters-esque organ riffs, spacey dub effects, and punchy horn pads.
Medeski Martin & Wood's swan song on Blue Note, 2004's End of the World Party presents a compelling amalgam of melodies, textures, and beats. This edgy opus, produced by John King of the Dust Brothers is represented here by the catchy "Mami Gato", underscored by Wood's humungous bass tones on the doublebass and some particularly hip, polyrhythmic playing on the kit from Martin. Medeski plays strictly piano on this rumba-flavored number, affecting an authentic Cuban sensibility on the keys as laid down by such pioneers as Bebo Valdes and Rubén Gonzalez of the Buena Vista Social Club. The raucuous "Queen Bee" is a thrashing, 1960's garage band funk rave-up fueled by Medeski's wailing organ work and a ripping guitar solo from guest Marc Ribot. And the title track from the band's final Blue Note recording is an ambitious number brimming with strings and anchored by Wood's deep doublebass tones. Medeski plays some soulful Wurlitzer electric piano here, conjuring up distant memories of 1960's soul anthems on top of Martin's insistently funky backbeat.
Today, 15 years after its inception, Medeski Martin & Wood continues its mission of pushing the envelope sonically, artistically, collectively. Thousands upon thousands of miles into their long and strange trip, these three old-school funkateers with jazz pedigrees and wide-open, forward thinking sensibilities remain humble ambassadors of the groove. Their next chapter is already being written. But for now, this collection spanning seven years captures a golden period when Medeski Martin & Wood was steadily building on its reputation as godfathers of the burgeoning jam band scene, and breaking new ground in the process.