Music » Music Stories & Interviews

Playing the field



The trio of keyboardist John Medeski, drummer Billy Martin and bassist Chris Wood started making a "downtown" buzz back in 1991 by combining hip-hop, funk and rock with free jazz. In the 11 albums released since then, Medeski Martin & Wood ( have both delighted and perplexed fans, and given more than one critic something to complain about. But it's the band's extracurricular projects -- spanning a strange and glorious gamut over the years -- that keep the highly regarded New York-based players busy (and their rabid music fans tapping their toes) while they are not touring and recording as Medeski Martin & Wood. It all shows just how influential MMW have become in modern music, even if listeners aren't sure what to call their output. On Wednesday, Nov. 28, the hardworking threesome hits the House of Blues for some name-brand fun.

As a group, they've backed a variety of musical causes, in and out of the studio, including recorded campaigns by arranger Ken Schaphorst ("When the Moon Jumps") and out-there guitarist John Scofield ("A Go Go"). On their own, they've stretched the boundaries of musical exploration -- and self-indulgence -- even further. For starters, Martin started his own label and released a recording of the sound of rain on bamboo. Wood played on Iggy Pop's latest bombastic slap, "Avenue B."

Most notably, Medeski, the busiest of the bunch, has found a sizable national audience for new group The Word, a Sacred Steel-inspired free-form explosion that has already gained considerable notice from fans. Calling from the studio, where MMW are mixing tracks for their next album (due in the spring of 2002), Medeski talked about The Word and his myriad other undertakings.

"It's just something I've always wanted to do -- a gospel record," says Medeski of the self-titled debut disc by The Word (, released in July on Ropeadope Records. The album is a groundbreaking affair, the first to bring the church-born Sacred Steel instrumentation -- bluesy lead guitar angelically played on pedal steel guitar -- to the mainstream secular market. (Not surprisingly, considering the state's strong ties to the genesis of the music, Orlando serves as the host city for the national Sacred Steel Convention, scheduled for April 5 and 6, 2001, at Sheraton Four Points Hotel; for details visit

The budding Word teams Medeski with the Grammy-winning North Missis-sippi Allstars and pedal steel lion Robert Randolph, the current "young gun" of the Sacred Steel posse. This isn't the old-timey music of "O Brother," "Where Art Thou?"; this is a revival service led by the spirits of Buddy Guy and Booker T, with rolling waves of organ, searing guitar and dense drum beats. The sinuous guitar line that runs through "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning" is enough to leave listeners speaking in tongues.

"It's the freshest Ã?new' traditional music I've heard," says Medeski, a Fort Lauderdale native.

Besides heading up MMW's playful jams and The Word's majesty, Medeski is pianist/organist for John Lurie's Lounge Lizards and John Zorn's hard-bop-meets-Klezmer project, Masada. He is also an in-demand session player who has lent his talents to many major-label recordings, including those by artists as diverse as David Byrne, Cibo Matto and Blues Traveler. Why? Medeski can hit a groove right out of New Orleans funk and then slip into Keith-Emerson-on-acid licks before you realize what hit you. There's hints of Al Kooper-era Blood Sweat & Tears -- another band criticized for mixing jazz and pop -- and the multi-level layering of Yo La Tengo.

"It's about who's playing the music, and when," says Medeski, a classically trained pianist. "If the music is real, it takes on the personality of the players."

And when it's real, the consummate musician is always ready to jam -- be it with bassist/vocalist Me'Shell Ndegeo-cello, saxophonist Dewey Redman or Orlando's own avant-jazz sax hero, Sam Rivers. "I played with Sam several times, when he used to come to Boston with the Big Band," says Medeski, ever ready to fuel fan debate. "And nobody in the world would dare say he wasn't jazz!"

As for the others in the core trio, Martin, a seriously in-the-pocket drummer best known for performing with Samm Bennett, Zorn and Chuck Mangione before MMW, is the first of the bunch to start his own imprint, Amulet Records. Off-the-beaten-path efforts include the bamboo-on-water opus "Falling Water" and reissues of out-of-print gems like Bob Moses' 1975 classic "Bittersuite Into the Ozone." Martin even recorded a percussion sample CD dubbed "illy B Eats" for the many DJs hungry for his steady grooves. As a session player, Martin, who also jams with Medeski in Masada and the Lounge Lizards, has left his mark on recordings by Bob Moses, Chris Whitley and Karl Denson.

And Wood, who has been called "the master of Zen-like phrases," has recorded and toured with Steve Kuhn, Either/Orchestra (with Medeski), Ned Rothenberg Double Band (with Martin), Elliot Sharp, The Jazz Passengers, Chunk, Joann Brackeen, Rootless Cosmopolitans (featuring Marc Ribot) and the Black Rock Coalition. Wood also guested on Scofield's most recent star-studded, groove-heavy effort Bump. Not too many bassists can take turns carrying a melody and propelling a band like the nimble-fingered fretman.

Through all of their endeavors, MMW weave a common thread, one of general confusion about what they are doing, exactly. One visitor to the Blue Note Records website proclaimed about "The Dropper," the band's last release: "It is so strange that it can't be compared. Not just to MMW earlier work, but to anything. What are these guys up to?"

Are they jazz, are they something else? "I've been tired of that since I started playing at 17," says Medeski. Wood has said in interviews, "I just call it Ã?Medeski-Martin-&-Wood-mu-sic.' Jazz has become another four-letter word to describe something that people aren't sure what it is."

Terms, boundaries, genres and limits -- they are all redefined by the mind-altering music of Medeski Martin & Wood.

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