An artist’s greatest strength is versatility. The ability to adapt to different formats, different suites, different globes, different scenes: the ability to (in the words of Ezra Pound) “Make it new.” The list of artists who have adhered to this credo at different times in their careers is long, but some examples can be noted by comparing Led Zeppelin II and Led Zeppelin III; Stravinsky’s Minimalist opuses and The Firebird Suite; Guernica and Picasso’s Blue Period; Dosteovsky’s The Idiot versus Notes from Underground; and Tonic and The Dropper.
electronic-MMW versus acoustic-MMW
One of the greatest things music can offer is a candid look at finite tinges. Whereas with writing and other art forms, one has to search, and know how to search for subtle shades, music can present intricacy up front and out in the open. You don’t need a music degree to hear all that is going on when MMW plays “Hey Joe.” But MMW is often forced to play loud when they play electronically, and are unable to explore all of the fine tints music has to offer. It is very difficult to sprinkle feathery musical metaphors when every statement has to end in an exclamation point. To the contrary, it is not difficult to use both major and minor thirds when employing commas and parentheses. According to Billy Martin, when MMW is in an acoustic format, in a setting like Chicago’s Symphony Center (where the crowd has to be quiet) “We play better. The inflections in the language are manifest.”
History. The key to understanding each note, each rhythm, each song choiceeach stopis history. Sitting back stage at the Symphony Center, Billy Martin told me how, at the age of eighteen, he bought a complete collection of Beethoven’s symphonies on vinyl, Sir George Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. History. I cannot listen to Medeski play the piano without hearing McCoy Tyner, Thelonoius Monk, and even, surprisingly, on certain songs on Notes from the Underground, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, and their acclaimed ilk. I can also hear fragments of Medeski’s contemporary piano players, namely, Brad Meldauh. History. I cannot listen to any notes by MMW without hearing the dissonance of late-Seventies Miles Davis, or Sun Ra, or, for that matter, Philip Glass. You cannot listen to MMW without this historythey simply do not make sense without it. Martin told me, when speaking of the history of jazz musicians, from Duke to Miles to Bird, that they were “playing their melodies and their harmonies. But we have taken them to a new place, which is what they would have wanted . . . just as they took the music to a new place in their day. Now, we are carrying the baton.”
On Thursday, July 3, 1958, Miles Davis played at the Newport Jazz Festival. In his introduction of the group, Willis Connover (The Voice of America) said, “In the Ellington conception, it isn’t the instrument that’s being played that makes the difference, but the man who plays it. The leader of our next group has found himself in the same situation, which Mr. Ellington has known: that of establishing a very distinctive, original, personal sound, then hearing it coming back from all of his admirers and being forced to extend his own creative boundaries once again to find something again that is distinctively his own.” MMW knows how to reinvent their sound, but they have not done so because they were forced, but because they chose to. Rarely can artists such as MMW go back and forth between two different mediums so effortlessly. And to some degree, as Billy Martin says, “It’s hard for us to do both on the same night.” Each format has its advantages. (For the advantages, and much, much more on electronic-MMW, please see my first essay, e-MMW) As far as I am concerned, the advantages of a-MMW are numerous, and these advantages multiply when they are given the chance to play in a place like the Symphony Center, where one could hear the flakes of dandruff falling to the ground from the dread locks on May 18, 2001. Instead of having to create a colossal sound, MMW could play softly. Martin told me that he likes playing “really softly.” Any rogue can plug into an enormous P.A., turn the amps up to eleven, and blast the audience out onto the street; but playing softly, really softly, that is much more demanding, much more artistic. Playing softly involves enlarging one’s ears, and always being focused in to the music at hand. We’ve all heard Michael Jordan talk about the basket being exponentially larger when he would get in the zone, well, when a musician gets in the zone, his ears grow to Dumbo-like proportions. At the Symphony Center, MMW’s dynamics changed from a gamut of loud to louder to loudest to an entire sound continuum ranging from whisper to murmur to sigh to soft voice to undertone to twelve-inch voice to conversational voice to public-speaking voice to bawl to bellow to shout to yell to scream. Quite simply, there was more sound. Instead of reaching for tripped out noises, Medeski was able to explore melodies and harmonies that are inaudible in a club setting. Martin said of playing in clubs, “My ears are fried, and I don’t have control.” Clubs are loud and smoky, and many people are there not to listen to music, but just to have a good time. This is ok, but the music suffers because the group has to play louder to be heard.
Any musical group that decides to open up the boundaries and jam takes the risk of getting repetitive. Most times, if this happens, the rhythm section is the first to suffer. One way to avoid continual-recurrence (for a drummer) is to not spend the entire jam sitting at the drum set. Martin has always brought a great deal of percussion with him when he plays, but playing at the Symphony Center allowed him to play with his percussion toys much much more. The reason for this is simple: one of his main jobs in e-MMW is to keep the beat going so that the audience can dance. Since this was not essential at this show, he was able to play with his various toys much more. His playing was a far cry from his Bonhamesque playing on The Dropper. Medeski and Wood answered acutely to this. The use of percussion gave them new and different rhythmic and melodic opportunities. The entire musical product was much richer, more resonate, and more beautiful, because they could play quieter.
Raymond Carver has a book titled, Will you please be quiet, please?. This has become a motto of sorts for me. I cringe every time I listen to my copy of Trey Anastasio in Cleveland, earlier this year, and I hear one guy tell another guy about the “Moby Dick” covers at last year’s Deer Creek Phish show, when right in front of both of them is Trey Anastasio himself, playing musicneither seem to care. It seems as if many people go to see shows, not for the music, but to be able to blabber on towards infinity about how they were therehow they witnessed it. I don’t mind telling you that I read a lot. As I mentioned before, I live in an area of Chicago known as East Lakeview; it is trendy, most importantly safe and by the lakewhere it is cooler; but it is also full of yuppies. And they never shut up. I am forced to sit in my apartment and read because coffee shops, diners, movie theaters, even Lincoln Park on a cold day, are all full of people chattering away. As Martin says, “Distraction, number one, is not a good thing.” And one of the main distractions for a musician can be people talking while they are trying to play, especially when they are trying to play something quietly. Understand, when you are talking you are making music as well, and often that music jars with what is being played on the stage. In my short talk with Billy Martin, I came to realize that all he cares about is making the best music he can. People talking and blowing smoke in his face during shows causes him to lose his focus, and that is not good for anyone.
Martin told me they were excited to play at the Symphony Center because the possibilities for subtle music, for a profound musical conversation to take place, were boundless. And, in my opinion, one did take place on May 18. I have never seen them so close, so tight, so in control, so mutual, cohesive, joint; I heard one musician playing one instrument, not three playing three. This coagulated when Martin got up from his drum set with his cuica, and sat down at Medeski’s piano. This was during “Acht O’ Clock Rock,” at which time, MMW played completely acoustic. That is, their instruments were not being amplified at all. I heard so much space. So much hinted at, but not played. So much occurring between the notes. So much that was intricate, subtle, transcendent. I heard bass from Wood. Piano from Medeski. I heard “Brazilian bird calls (wooden), duck and goose calls, toy whistles,” and, “Cuica. The tone is made by rubbing the stick inside the drum with a wet cloth, which is attached to the drum skin,” from Martin. I heard them play in, out, on top of, in front of, next to, behind, and in between each other (literally). I heard the cuica, a friction drumsomething originally from Africa, but now commonly associated with Brazil. The tickled but still hard notes full of harmony from the piano. And the rhythms riffed politely by the bass:
When I read “friction drum” for the first time, I almost fell out of my chair. I mean, is there a fiction drum? You could have drum fiction, couldn’t you? You could also have a friction snare, or a friction tom. There are endless possibilities. One could make their own cuica, very simply. First, get a plastic cup or a sturdy food container. Then, hammer a nail through the bottom of the cup (or sturdy food container) in order to make a hole. Make another hole exactly .4679 inches away from the first; be careful. Thread a few feet of plastic dental tape or mint-flavored dental floss through both holes, so that the ends of the dental tape or floss are inside the cup. Make sure the ends are the same length, like you would with a new pair of shoe laces. Tie a knot as close to the holes as possible. This is to keep the string from sliding out as you play the instrument. The knot should be on the inside of the cup and the tails should hang out of the cup's mouth. To play your very own cuica: Hold the strings in one hand and the cup (or sturdy food container) in the other. Slide your fingers along the string; no, not like thatpet it like you would a woman; experiment; friction is key.
Frederico Cribiore writes in the liner notes to Tonic, “the desire to return to the acoustic setting has never waned. It is MMW’s heart and soul, their beginnings; and maybe most importantly, their original vision.” If you do not own Notes from the Underground, please stop reading, and go and buy it. (While you’re out, pick up a copy of Dosteovsky’s Notes from Underground.) Instead of Hendrix covers, you have Bud Powell and John Coltrane and Duke Ellington covers. Instead of feel out the sounds and space-like passages to begin, like you have with e-MMW, with a-MMW, on Tonic, you have an “Invocation.” A term that is firmly ingrained in the John Coltrane lexicon. Tonic ends, as you know, with “Hey Joe.” The lyrics of it (even though they are not sang) fit as well as the groove. If you recall, the last thing Jimi sings on his version is “Goodbye, everybody.” So when I heard the opening chords of “Hey Joe” entering the piano from “Rise Up,” in a Keith Jarrett-like introduction, I thought the show was over. To me it seemed the perfect way to end, and probably the first time Hendrix was introduced to the stage at the Symphony Center. I got shivers down my spine as Medeski tickled the ascending chromatic bass line in a high octave. As soon as they left the stage, the last of the subscribers exited (they had been slowing leaving throughout the show), and those who had came to see MMW, not just some jazz group, took over the main floor. When they came back, I thought, for a second, that there might be trouble with people standing; but, I am proud to say, “the scene” realized where it was and promptly took their seats. It seemed as if “we” had taken over the Symphony Center. And when the bows and the two encores were over, I turned around and looked upwe had finally made our mark in the hidebound world of Classical music.
To appreciate the importance of a band like MMW playing at the Symphony Center, you only have to have a vague sense of the history of the place. The list of musicians who have played their is too long to recount now. Another way to grasp the magnitude is to stand outside the place. I don’t know how many of you have been to Chicago, but the Symphony Center is located on Michigan avenue, across the street from the Art Institute. After my talk with Martin, I went outside and simply stood still; my friend Giovanni was standing out there, and after asking me about the interview, we both sort of stopped talking for a long time, and stood staring at the Art Institute, at the enormous sign for a new exhibition of Van Gogh and Gaugin. I could feel the magnitude of the place. After a while, we turned to look at the Symphony Center as the first few tye-died fans started to roll up, and the subscribers went inside for dinner. Though this remained unspoken, we could both see that two diverse cultures were coming together, that this signaled an acceptance of the music we both loved (and I am writing about) by a world that would have nothing to do with it in the past. The Classical world has been slow to accept jazz, but here they were accepting a jam band, perhaps not with open arms, but still, they had to accept them because this music was art as well. Will Phish (the great Leviathan of all jam bands) play a gig at the Symphony Center? Probably not anytime soon. I would love it though, I would love being able to hear every note of music. Not that I don’t enjoy cheering and clapping and dancing like crazy, but I am really in it for the music, and if having to sit down will allow me to hear more of it, well, then I will kindly take a seat and keep my mouth shut.
ONE SET ONLY :Angel Race (I'll Wait For You) > Syeeda's Song Flute > Angel Race (I'll Wait For You) > Seven Deadlies, Brigas Nunca Mais > Afrique, Rise Up > Hey Joe
ENCORE #1:Swamp Road
ENCORE #2:Acht O'Clock Rock