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Published: 1999/01/15
by Bob Makin

Medeski Martin and Wood: A Colorful Palette

The New York-based trio Medeski Martin and Wood are a rare exception in jazz: they have a young audience, one that is shared with the many jam bands they’ve performed with on a few HORDE tours. Their young crowd is one of the reasons the legendary jazz label Blue Note Records wanted to sign them. But their label debut and fifth album overall, Combustication, is not like anything heard on Blue Note before. A collaboration with ambient hip-hop’s DJ Logic, “Combustication” is acid jazz for the new millennium; another reason Blue Note wanted to sign MMW. They’re taking jazz into uncharted musical space.

While Logic added to their groove, the trio added to fusion guitarist John Scofield’s on his acclaimed “A Go Go” disc by serving as his backing band both in the studio and onstage. While drummer Billy Martin on his honeymoon at the end of the summer, keyboardist John Medeski and bassist Chris Wood joined Scofield on the road with former James Brown drummer Clyde Stubblefield, inventor of the Cold Sweat groove, hip-hop’s most sampled rhythm. The funky union is one that both MMW and Scofield fans always will remember.

The trio also recently lent their groove to Iggy Pop at the request of producer Don Was. MMW’s spontaneous contribution can be heard on the punk godfather’s forthcoming spring release.

Now back on the road, the trio participated in their label’s 60th anniversary celebration from Jan. 13 to 19. Blue Note Takes New York also featured such esteemed labelmates as vocalist Cassandra Wilson and pianist Jacky Terrasson. But while most Blue Note acts were playing short sets for pricey covers in Gotham’s jazz haunts, MMW were rocking at the relatively new rock club Bowery Ballroom with DJ Logic.

I spoke with John Medeski about how his group’s funk rocket travels in a jazz universe. So far, he says, he’s really enjoying the trip.

How does it feel to be participating in Blue Note’s 60th anniversary?

It’s a big honor. You don’t play the (Hammond) B-3 and not be influenced by Jimmy Smith, another great with lots of records on Blue Note. And Lonnie Smith is one of my favorites to see play live. Their whole catalog is the best in jazz. Some of the greatest music in the history of American music is on that label: Herbie Nichols, Bud Powell, that’s just the tip of it. Then there’s all the Art Blakey stuff. Herbie Hancock before he went on to a bigger audience.

While all the other acts involved in Blue Note Takes New York are playing well-established jazz venues, you’re playing a relatively new rock venue. How is that symbolic of your relationship with Blue Note and your place within the music marketplace?

We have a younger audience whose tastes are more contemporary. Charlie Parker was not playing in a club like the Blue Note the way jazz musicians are today, where it’s $40 for short sets. Things are so different now than they were in the ’50s. It’s a different scene. The clubs they were playing were not tourist spots. I’m not putting down where anyone’s playing and I don’t want to judge them, but Parker and Monk were playing the cutting-edge clubs of the time, not the tourist spots, which would have been like the hotels. There was a great scene going on at that time with clubs like Birdland. That’s what we’re interested in doing. Our relationship to jazz is more parallel than direct.

You’re probably the label’s best live draw, yet you don’t get the kind of airplay their more traditional artists get, like Cassandra Wilson and Joe Lovano. Do you sometimes feel like an island?

The label seems to be looking for new artists who have their own voice and are being adventurous. There’s so much history to jazz, people are trapped by the mechanics. But they’ve signed Don Byron. He’s adventurous.

The music business is so complex right now because of how co-opted it’s becoming. Whenever something really great comes out, big companies try to formulate and reproduce it. The money thing is so important. I can’t imagine being at a big record company.

That’s why admire (Blue Note honcho) Bruce Lundvall for leaving CBS and coming to Blue Note. I admire him for doing that in this day and age. He’s one of the main reasons we signed with them. He convinced us to go with them. I think he’s a great guy and that’s important.

As far as the radio thing, we’ve developed our audience by playing live, not through radio. You can’t label our music. It’s not pigenholeable, and we’re proud of that, but it also keeps us off the radio. There’s so much music out there, it’s hard to be an educated listener anymore. A lot of people in radio certainly aren’t. There’s so much great music, it’s hard to see what’s going on now. Most people want to compare it, label it, try to describe it terms that they already know.

I don’t think I do that with anything. I try to judge things on their own terms. For any musician, the music is where it’s at for themselves. That’s when it means something to me, when musicians express themselves. That’s why I love John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Bud Powell, all for different reasons, but it’s really about the connection to themselves and the music that matters.

The old Blue Note label found artists like. They’ll find artists, but these days it’s harder. I’m not claiming I am an artist like that, but I acknowledge that it’s hard. It’s something I strive to be and dream about. But the whole Blue Note anniversary, we’re psyched to be a part of it.

What was it like recording with Iggy Pop?

That was great. He’s a great guy, really nice, really creative and very spontaneous. And Don Was is a great producer. I loved working with those guys.

I saw Iggy Pop open for Pearl Jam this summer, and I was amazed at how eternally youthful he was. Did that come across while you were working with him?

He’s very youthful. His body is like a young kid and just his attitude, his approach to things. We did some tunes of his. I don’t know if they recorded it, but we also did ‘Autumn Leaves’ and ‘Willow Weep for Me.’ We were just doing them for fun, but he sounded great. He was crooning. He could be the Frank Sinatra for the new millennium.

What did you appreciate most about touring with John Scofield and Clyde Stubblefield at the end of the summer?

Everything about it. Clyde gave great groove lessons. I love Scofield’s linear approach to the guitar. Plus, we were getting to hear all those James Brown and Miles Davis stories. Getting to hear the truth about them. They’d tell us stories about them in the van together driving to gigs. It was really funny.

I took my father to see the show at the Count Basie Theatre, and he was just like, ‘My God, Stubblefield is a machine.’

Stubblefield grooves when he snores. He’s got better time in his sleep than most people have.

DJ Logic has remained an unofficial member of MMW. What does he bring to your music, particularly from an improvisational standpoint?

It’s so much fun playing with him. You assume something with a DJ, but really, playing live with a band and improvising, being spontaneous is not that easy. He brings a whole other dimension, and that’s the beauty of it. He adds a fourth dimension. For me, that’s the most important thing. Everybody adds another dimension just by being themselves. He doesn’t really change the direction that we are going in or where want to be. He just fits in and fills the cracks.

He’s developed his style by playing with bands. He’s always done that. As a person, he’s very mellow and can fit into any situation. That passes over in his music. He’s very easy going and makes you feel comfortable, which is the way his music is.

What direction do you think your next album will take?

We usually don’t know until we get closer to recording it. We’re going into the studio in the spring. This last record, more than half of it evolved in the studio. That way when we compose music, it gives it a real spontaneous feel.

I really liked your work with Chocolate Genius. Do you think you’ll work with him again?

I hope so. I loved playing with him. I just did a gig with him. We had so much fun in the studio. He’s another really spontaneous, creative person. We did a lot of that stuff on the spot.

That’s wild. It sounded so rehearsed.

Exactly. When you don’t get in the way, music really flows and sounds like it was meant to. I think that’s the greatest thing, when compositions sound as natural as great improvisation and great improvisation sounds like a great composition. They’re really just great songs that sound natural.

Your audience loves to hear you jam and groove, but most people don’t know exactly how you improvise those rhythms. Could you explain MMW’s groove and how you don’t even know where it’s going to go?

At best, it’s done when you’re not doing anything. It’s done by practicing a palette of musical ideas, harmonies, rhythms and colors. Then we get together and just play. We play together so much that we’re at our best when we’re not thinking and worrying about anything. It’s hard to do that. We need to continually enlarge our palette, learn more technique and more music, more material.

It’s really about interplaying things and then letting them come out in the music naturally. That’s why we attract the audience that we do, because people are looking for that. They’re looking for people who try to do what’s today. They appreciate older recordings, but when you’re young, you want to know what’s going on now. When you’re young, you want to study music, but you it’s also interesting doing what’s now in this world I’m living in. From there, you’re attracted to the history.

I just wish more musicians at a high level would get out and play for the younger audience. I wish they would direct their music toward that audience. I think jazz is an advanced musical language and that people need to become familiar with the language. The more you do that, the more layers you find. It’s never ending. But I don’t think it’s impossible for young listeners to appreciate. I did when I was young.

Where we play makes the difference. People should play everywhere. They should play the Blue Note for short sets and high covers and play smaller clubs.

It was so refreshing do gigs with the trombonist Hal Crook. He’s a legendary big band trombonist and arranger, a musical genius who teaches at Berklee. We played with the drummer Bob Gulloti, who was part of Surrender to the Air. And the young people who know who I am came down. It was great, because these guys loved playing to a young, packed house.

Comment on what you appreciate most about Duke Ellington’s music and why that warrants special attention during this centennial year of his birth.

Duke Ellington was the master of so many things. He was a great piano player, composer, arranger and a master band leader. He was the consummate of all those things. He knew how to work with his musicians in a way that brought out the best in them and yet, he still realized his vision in music. I like the fact that his music is jazz but also pop. It’s everything. His music is everything. They’re great songs that can be done by anybody in any way. It just goes to show that it’s still the song that matters.

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Bob Makin is one of Dean Budnick’s favorite people. He writes for the Courier News.

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