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Published: 2000/11/15
by Bob Makin

Adventures in Roots With MMW’s Chris Wood

Medeski, Martin and Wood turns jazz on its ear by fusing it with rock and hip-hop even more than fusion and jazz-groove acts. At the same time, the New York-based trio remains true to its jazz and classical roots by constantly improvising and growing as musicians.

Together nearly 10 years, keyboardist John Medeski, drummer Billy Martin and bassist Chris Wood recently released their ninth and most experimental album, “The Dropper,” an ill-ient mix featuring such special guests as downtown New York guitarist Marc Ribot, Sun Ra sax great Marshall Allen,

Afro-Cuban percussion legend Eddie Bobe and jazz/classical violinist Charlie Burnham. A follow-up to the completely opposite-sounding acoustic live effort, Tonic, released earlier this year, The Dropper is a continuation of the 1998 Combustication collaboration with DJ Logic.

MMW will tour through mid-December behind “The Dropper.” For more information about the band and its various side projects and independent label endeavors, visit www.mmw.net. In the meantime, enjoy the following chat with Wood.

What is “The Dropper?”

We just picked a name that means a lot of different things. It’s not too specific. We did start to joke in the studio as the record was developing in weird directions that this would be the one that would get us dropped from the record label. But it’s also a term used in a lot of different ways, like to drop beats or to drop a bomb in a musical sense. But it’s really just ambiguous and can go in a lot of different directions.

Comment on how the band’s marriage of rock and jazz also has included hip-hop and ambient techno sounds since 1998’s “Combustication” collaboration with DJ Logic. How has that direction been enjoyable and interesting for you?

Well, it’s been enjoyable and interesting in that it’s just been different and challenging. We’re always listening to new records, either getting turned onto new things or old things things that are new to us but have been around for years. We like to keep things fresh and developing. We don’t want do the same old thing all the time. We’ll get bored and the people will get bored. We like to keep it interesting. We do that with the types of venues we play too. It’ll be an intimate club or a gigantic outdoor shed. That’s one of the reasons we released ‘Tonic,’ which was totally more of an acoustic jazz record, within the same year as we released ‘The Dropper.’ That’s completely in the opposite direction. For us, it’s a dream come true to have that happen all in the same year.

Did you pick Wu-Tang Clan producer Scotty Hard in the hopes that he’d bring a strong hip-hop element? How do you feel about the results?

We hired him as engineer, but it’s just the way it works out when you create a record. We all produced it together. It was good for us to have someone who we could trust their tastes as an engineer. It was good for us to have an objective perspective. That’s what he adds. It’s good to have someone to tell you to keep what’s great or try something different. Of course, he has a certain history with this type of music that he’s worked with in a really adventurous way. It was great because a lot of the tunes changed when we got to mixing time. We were still composing right through that. We’d create whole new sections of music by dropping things out and bringing them back in again.

Whether the electric jazz of ‘The Dropper’ or the acoustic jazz of “Tonic,’ I love the way you’re able to come up with some completely modern-sounding like ‘We Are Rolling,’ yet also get into a rich Jimmy Smith-like vibe on ‘Philly Cheese Blunt.’ Comment on how you stay true to modern jazz’s roots while taking it where no jazz has gone before.

We’ve been playing together coming up on 10 years. I think it’s a lot harder to get that feeling when you’ve just thrown a band together with different musicians who have not played together before. But when you’re a band that’s toured and lived and played together and developed together and seen each other grow, you just know how to read each other pretty well. We now how anticipate some of the things we’re going to do. We improvise well together and have created our own sound over the years so it doesn’t matter if it’s more rock, hip-hop or jazz, it’s still us and always will be.

I’m surprised you don’t have DJ Logic on here. I guess that proves that you can make some pretty far-out sounds without him.

Yeah. We have plenty of sounds for sure. With Logic, it was great to have him and we did our thing with him and since then, he’s moved on with his own band and he’s touring. We see him and sometimes he sits in with us. He’s a good friend and a such sweetheart. We love him. It’s great to see him off doing his own thing. It feels good that we could help him in that way. But it was enough. A DJ is a very specific thing. A lot of people, it doesn’t matter what they’re playing, see a DJ and think hip-hop. It has that certain reference to a certain genre, but it’s fun to play with him and stretch that preconception people have about a DJ. We did that with him, but it was time to move on and do something different. But playing with him inspired us in certain ways to fill in the cracks of our music with different textures.

You have a bunch of great special guests on ‘The Dropper.’ Comment on the contributions that really knocked you out.

Marc Ribot is always amazing. He just came in for three hours one day and did tons of great stuff. He added a lot. Marshall Allen was the alto player with Sun Ra. He’s a hero of ours and Sun Ra was a big hero of ours. It was an honor to have him. Eddie Bobe played congas on ‘Felic.’ He’s a great Afro-Cuban drummer. The string players were great. (Violinist) Charlie Burnham blew me away. He nailed everything in one take. We already had recorded as a trio so he walked in and improvised with it. I don’t know how he did it. He was playing figures I’d never heard before. And I love the strings on the last track with the string section.

Besides Burnham, they include cellist Jane Scarpantoni, who’s played with R.E.M. Yeah, she’s also played with The Lounge Lizards and is part of the downtown music scene. She plays rock ‘n’ roll and avant garde. She’s great on that last tune, ‘Norah 6,’ which is a tribute to contemporary classical composer, Penderecki, from Poland. He’s been a big influence on us. We listen to him a lot when we’re touring in the van.

Are you all partial to Philly cheese steaks? Is that where ‘Philly Cheese Blunt’ comes from or is that a tribute to Marshall Allen and Sun Ra, they’re being from Philadelphia?

It’s more of a Philly cheese steak reference. That’s a Billy Martin title. He went through a period where he was really into Philly cheese steaks. He still gets the occasional one.

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