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Published: 2004/12/31

Listen to the Voice in Your Head: The Continuing Saga of Medeski Martin and Wood

A couple days ago, my friend and I were sitting in my apartment listening to MMW's It’s a Jungle in Here, talking about something a professor had said about functional and non functional music while curling his index and middle fingers into manual quotations, because, after all, what the hell does that mean? What bands like Medeski Martin and Wood were doing, he seemed to suggest, was blurring the lines between art and pop music.

"What exactly is art music", my friend asked.

".........I have absolutely no idea." We laughed, and sighed and listened for another few minutes.

"And yet when I listen to particular kinds of really bad music, I understand perfectly what it means. You know what it is? It's music that you actually have to listen to appreciate. That's what I think.

After having thought about it, I don't have the faintest idea. I'm not sure that anyone does, but I'm fairly sure that it's one of many modern terms which arise more out of difficulty than out of the apprehension that any other genre construction, like avant-garde or Downtown-jazz, for example, advertises. In the end, all art music essentially implies is that in order to appreciate what we're hearing we have to deal with the harrumphing inconvenience of actually listening to it, which isn't as much an act of stern intellectual sentience as it is compounding the essential faculty of empathy with which we experience a good piece of music with a commitment to be present for each subsequent moment in which it unfolds itself.

When we pretentious rock-crit mongrels malign Pop music it isn't necessarily because it's vapid, lifeless, and uninspiring, because it's trend-oriented and overly concerned with artifice and materialism, or because it propagates a kind of horrifying teeny-bop sexuality. Nor is it because it maintains an obsession with its own idea that reaches masturbatory proportions, or because its closest approximations to lyrical content come off like a gum chewing Beverly Hills valedictorian citing Kennedy quotations. And it isn't because the 60's are over, and Tom Dowd has passed on and Roger Daltrey does infomericals with soap stars or because Dylan has resigned himself mostly to the amusement of fucking with us by making his songs unrecognizable and popping up non-sensically in abstract lingerie ads, writing after all these years an autobiography that just turns out to be a streamy unimportant piece of nonsense. Actually, those last couple things are kind of funny. It isn't even that its blind emphasis on melodic material, regardless of substance, panders to a riddlin munching Attention Deficit Disorder as imagined and meaningless as the placebos prescribed to its afflicted. We can always make something meaningful, or be affected by something meaningless, or have a great time parodying it. I have friends, dear friends, whom I respect, that would take a bullet for Morris Day and the Time.

The problem is that Pop music, like a microwavable dinner served on little death trays to drooling, gape mouthed Americana grotesques, doesn't require our presence or our thought, and hasn't for so long that anything which demands it seems some sort of wild imposition, which isn't as much a tragedy in terms of the intellect as it is in the way it neglects the cavernous emotional depth that exists beneath less evident entry points. Art complexity and depth with pop accessibility..Whatever either of those things mean..Wouldn't that be sumpin?

Most nostalgics, underneath the idealism, are pricks, and not just regular pricks, but campy pricks, which is worse. Strange things happenin every day, like Greil Marcus said and Dylan and Sister Rosetta before them both, and no one who wants to preserve their soul, no one who wants to quit, wants to get sucked into the consciousless womb of where has all the music gone. Yet the idea of meaningful, intelligent music has become something of a modern tragic-comedy, and why shouldn't it be. We Americans like our beauty like we like our genius, tainted and darkened a bit at the corners-else we wouldn't have thought of MTV. But Jazz. Jazz!

*********** I love Halloween. It's the only time when we dumbsaint American citizens get to be who we really are and not feel so damn bad about it and judged like the lumbering slobbering criminal of the world, all masquerading and mischief (Trick!) and instant gratification(Treat!). It's a wonderful holiday invented by people I salute, whoever ye may be, and on this particular one I'm sitting on the floor of an empty Hammerstein Ballroom watching Medeski Martin and Wood soundcheck, just a few scant hours before the venue will be inevitably infused with a nervous psychedelic energy as macabre and nervously volatile as the album they released a few months ago.

The jam, a take on the new track End of The World Party, coalescing with the natural ambient energy of the room, rises and expands like sonic heat, unearthing the inherent acoustic capabilities of a venue that began over a hundred years ago as an Opera House. There's no-one in the building save for crew and venue employees, but John Medeski is attacking the keys with an almost alarming sense of urgency, hands raised nearly to shoulder-level, fingers poised with the same anticipatory consternation as the expression he wears, swiveling around to one of the other keyboards surrounding him like some night club DJ to pick up a different sound. A hyper-speed soundscape in which the demonic growl of Chris Wood's upright bass plays scaffolding to Medeski's ghoulishly ethereal fills, the piece segues easily from horror into streamlined funk. It sputters and leaps into the air, holds itself in suspension spinning its legs like a cartoon animal accelerating and bursts back into motion along with drummer Billy Martin's cue. They break a few moments later. "Yeah", Martin says nodding. "That right there should just…. explode". He spreads his arms out creating a miniature imagined catastrophe, swells his cheeks and expels the air in one definitive explosion.

A sparse crew of technicians begins to swarm around the stage while the band fades cohesively into a suggestive salsa groove, as if musically tiptoeing around the distractions. A man standing a few feet away from me setting up the T-shirt sales stares gape-mouthed at Medeski whose arms are flailing as the play is intensifying, pouncing on the keys like a cat or casting some strange spell. Mad scientist, the associative image with Medeski has become almost clichbound in the surrounding insular space of instruments, (Hammond B3, clavinet, Wurlitzer, melotran, Yamaha cs synt, melodica, piano), the seamless frenetic transitions from one piece of equipment to the next- the sense that he has the improvisation written in his mind. This is the way it's always been, he's struggled against it, and he can't explain it. A lot of them assign an intellectual value to it, but that never made much sense to him, it always seemed more like feel, or the abeyance of some abstract need. The terminology- it all implied choice, and it never felt that way. He remembers the moment where he felt it first, they'll tell you about it on the website. A Mozart piano sonata, nine years old, "feeling as though he had become removed from himself, as though he was watching his fingers go through the motions of the piece", feeling at ease, that was most likely the thing. The moment where the labor of creation subsides and the whole process comes easily because it's not flowing through any faculty. Medeski's version of the moment you have as a kid when you realize you're looking through your body more than with it, where the eyes become windows and you wonder what it is that's looking through them, and have your first awkward experience with the self.

Twenty minutes later we're talking in a small backstage area, empty save for a collection of liquor large enough to sneer derisively at the Halloween antics one forfeits in aging. Wood, gaunt, slightly skeletal, maintains the fluid affability only someone who was borne in California and raised largely in Colorado could pull off, as slinky and bop as the elasticity of the sub aquatic baselines he lays down in numbers like "The Lover". "That's one of the saddest things to me about 60's rock and roll, the negative off-shoot, as much as I loved it" Medeski is saying. " It presupposed this idea that if it's not a song it's not music. All sound, all sonic events can be music. People are so ignorant sometimes and attached to the songs. It has to have a melody, but anything can have a melody, really I mean that shit is…". He trails off for a moment. "John Cage and all these guys blew that stuff out of the water in the 1900's and then suddenly nobody considers it music unless it's a song….But at the same time there's nothing like a great song, nothing like a great lyric. There just has to be an equal respect, or a balance. The stubbornness works both ways, you know? The irony of the jamband audience, for example, is that they're very open, but they are also extremely unaccepting of certain things. This is sort of in contrast to what I was saying before, but I see a real difficulty that they have with bands that just have great songs, tight little songs without a lot of improvisation, and that can be very powerful too, so it's a shame." Martin, who recently became a father ( literally, they claim, the moment when they wrapped their sessions for the last album), is 37, though he could easily pass for 28 , a deceptiveness which owes much to the with which he dresses and the way his unkempt brown hair falls partially over his eyes with an ordered dorm room nonchalance. In the half hour we're in the room, he doesn't sit still for over ten seconds, which reads initially as boredom and then melts into a kind of hyper-rhythmic compulsiveness. He rocks impatiently back and forth on his knees with his hands behind his back like a kid waiting to get out of study hall. He tucks them in to his chest and continues rocking on his backside, as if the room had rhythm and he could feel it, in the ticking of the clock, in his breath, his heartbeat, the reverberations of the piece he had just played, as if he had drummed it into his body, and his rhythmic sensibility needed a wider berth to shut down than his mind did to change tasks. Like getting off a treadmill, the stillness seems foreign. He most likely had felt it in the pits of the operas and concertos his father had played, even the fishing trips he used to go on with his uncle. "All the sounds of the earth are like music". Who was it that had said that? He runs through it in his mind. Maybe Bob Moses. " Humans thrive on the immediacy of a mnge of collective impulses and waveforms traveling through the air", the liner notes of the greatest hits album had read. "When it is pleasing we call it music". It had seemed like a good idea at the time; apt in the process of play, awkward in the in-between. **********

John Medeski was, one supposes, what they call a prodigy, a classical pianist since age seven, sick of the whole thing by age nine, a fact that might just have ended his musical career then and there had a clairvoyant father not made him rough it out. Midway through high school he found himself playing at a prestigious concerto competition when, as he told the band's online biographer, he picked up on the scent of some expensive perfume he found so inexplicably revolting that it served as a strange confirmation of an instinct he'd been having, like most rebellious virtuosos, towards a beckoning jazz nexus. Maybe he sensed the same death in it that had Hammerstein had picked up on at the Met. He eventually wound up at The New England Conservatory of Music, where Chris Wood was getting one semester under his belt before dropping out of official courses and immersing himself in private lessons with professors whose ideas seemed to have some resonance. Martin, save for a year in the preparatory division of The Manhattan School of Music, never much went for the idea of college, opting to go directly to the source. 12 years later, and a week before I meet him at the venue, he teaches an NYU Masterclass in percussion at the Blue Note. A week afterward he was backing a reading by the novelist Paul Auster a few blocks from Columbia. By the time Medeski and Wood got to New York, just as the jazz scene was undergoing a "downtown mutation", Martin was a tattered, circulated veteran of the collective, and in 1991 the three found themselves in Martin's loft rehearsing for a gig at The Village Gate.
It was an early history built on an almost grudgingly cerebral approach, but it was also about mentorship, acceptance and collaboration. The band's collective interpretation of the New York Jazz scene contained within it a somewhat archaic, wedding troupe idea of what it meant to be a musician, as well as a circular stylistic vision of music in which sounds ran into each other as frequently and inevitably as the musicians who bought into the concept. Permutations of players within the backroom jazz haunts of the village were as improvisational as the instrumental wanderings that took place on stage, and the challenge was to maintain an identity powerful enough to demand a collective ear and vague enough to be able to become what was needed in the moment. "Listening is so important, because you can be moved by so many things for so many different reasons, whether it's incredible rhythm, the sound of someone's instrument, it can be so amazing they can just play one note, and you hear them and feel something. That's really what I look for in music, feeling. It's about being open to it though, it's not always about prowess or skill. Because they way things go, it's easy to close yourself off.

Humility was founded conversely in the self assurance of one's play and the only scene in which the idea has been approximated outside of the jazz community is the jamband collective. Taken together, the two limiting constructions appropriately form the particular categorical street corner on which the band has been unwillingly placed. "You can't categorize a community, Medeski says, smiling just slightly sardonically. " If it's a jamband community, I don't want to be a part of it. If it's a jazz community I don't want to be a part of it. If it's an avant-garde community I don't want to be a part of it. But all those mentalities should be in a musical community, or an artistic or creative one." He's looking directly at me and it's fairly uncomfortable. We have an unspoken dialogue that goes like this:

_You have wronged us.
No more than we all were wronged by Wham.
You have wronged us.
It wasn't me.
It's the idea. Music is about a direct sensory experience. It's a unity. The imagination is infinite. Reason and language divide. Mozart!

"I moved to New York and I'd never heard of Downtown Jazz", Wood adds, sitting cross legged on the floor. "I just wanted to go there and be a part of the jazz scene that was all the idea was about. I'll study and we'll see what happens. But it was so- it was so closed, there was an elitist element to it, a certain set of expectations. When something isn't well defined you're going to hear a lot of different labels, but what it was then was just all different types of musicians just making a living, playing club dates or whatever. And that's they way it used to be when we went on tours. It wasn't a jamband scene when we first went out, it was just a handful of bands playing all over the place, and that was the really exciting time.

By the beginning of 2004, Medeski, Martin and Wood had released over 13 studio records. The albums, almost as if a grudging concession to time they could have spent creating music in a live context, were built out of hours of recorded studio jamming. The band would sift through endless amounts of tape and single out musical ideas, inverting the standard idea of the modern album by retrospectively assembling song structures that were at once sturdy and malleable, defined and open enough to accommodate the kineticism of its improvisational capabilities

The only linear thread, outside of the maintenance of each individual identity, was the consistent aim of cleaving meaning out of as many different contexts as possible, from sweeping landscapes to single fluttering notes, and the sound veered frenetically within that project. In one moment the albums demonstrate a Van Morrison obsession with fitting as much input as possible into minimal musical pockets, jengaing ideas to the delicate breaking point of toppling over into a mess with a chorus of laughter and disappointment; tempering the threat with a preternatural feel for sonic homeostasis. In the next, they project an equal concern with vast ambient spaciousness and jazzy atmospheric lulls. Discarding one domineering instrumental personality for a Pollockesque texture as compelling in its cohesive spontaneous energy as in the wanderings of its individual parts, the band played deftly on the melodic material stored within the pervasive pop imagination by leaving the expected voice undefined.

"I hear a lot of people who say why don't you get a singer, you know?'", Martin observes, as if t were the most absurd thing he could think of. "I should play guitar with you, classical, you know? Ive heard people say-who I respect- I missed that voice, whatever it is, whether it's a horn or a guitar or a vocal'. Missing the point, man. Listen to the voice in your head. "

The music was saturated in self assurance, yet as a reflection of those loose improv sessions exhibited a constant sense of surprise with its own motions. "The essence of a lot of our songs is there in the basic improvisations", Wood says." It's there, we wrote the song. Boom, it's done. I kind of feel like it happens instantly or it doesn't. Those are the moments we're interested in, and that's the kind of musicians we are. We don't sit down and agonize too much over writing a song."

With the release of 2002'S Uninvisible, the band began to gravitate back toward the groove-orientation of its fledgling years, a regression which lingered as they began to record again in 2004.

Opposition, Blake once wrote, is true friendship, and in John King, the cut and paste artist responsible for collage classics like Beck’s Odelay and The Beastie Boy’s opus Paul’s Boutique, Medeski Martin And Wood found an apt musical antagonist; a producer with an unapologetically pop-laden consciousness. King’s chain smoking sonic impatience tempered the band’s naturalism with a bit of necessary artifice, blending direct surfaces with Baroque interiors and compressing traditionally extended instrumental romps into alternative structures of layered verticality. The result was End of the World Party, a collection of fractal-like grooves borne of iteration and possessing the same sense of infinite microscopic detail. The album was veiled in apocalyptic celebration, a neurotic backlash against what feels like an unidentifiable yet imminent death; something like the rebound moment from the most visceral kind of fear, where horror melts into absurdity and sublimes into hysterical laughter. "The hope", Medeski says, looking downward for the first time, " is that someone puts on a record, instantly gets into one aspect of it, and then by the twentieth time or so that they've heard it, they're still hearing or feeling some new things. It has to have some staying power. But at the same time, it's hard to consciously create something like that, there's also an aspect of just putting it out there."

"One thing though", Martin notes, as if in defense of some unspoken accusation " is that every step of the process is still improvisation. (King) would take a great drum track or bass and drum track, and it's not like we've got it mapped out- what goes on top or around it it's a reaction to what we hear. John was improvising, he'd hear something and he'd listen and react and throw something on top, and we'd react to that, so it was always this back and forth. We'd play a bunch of stuff and pick and choose and then we'd play again. It always gets back to the improvising, so ultimately it felt like a real collaboration.

Like any good piece of improvisation, the marriage was founded in acts of acceptance. The balance the album maintains between craft and accessibility owes much to King's progressive indoctrination into the band's creative ethos, and his consequent accentuation of its ability to take cohesive turns through musical space in appropriates ideas. "It was cool to me over the process of the record how he became familiar with us and they way we improvise and get from point A to point B", Medeski says. "As it went along he started to retain that process in some of the pieces, whereas in the beginning he would say, well, let's take this drum and just loop that and create something new. Then it turned into, OK, this was good, let me just remove a bar here and let it develop, and I think that plays a great deal into the experience of the album as a whole, one of my favorite things about it."

Miami Gato serves as a particularly apt example of King's patience, juxtaposing an urgent bass driven groove against atmospheric jazz, with Medeski's fragile, running touch reaching deeply into the close night club familiarity of the bands' village roots. It's a record woven as well with a trans-cultural consciousness that flows through it as easily as "Reflector" skips across continents. Medeski's frenetic squawking keys, injected with irreverent fills from guest guitarist Marc Ribot, stumble seamlessly into overdubbed tribal chants bound to Martin's percussion like some Santana world-music sermon. The composite cascades down into the same salsa groove that minutes ago had the drummer crooning wryly over the sound technicians , "Oh John, You're such a Latin lover".

"You react to everything", Medeski says. " To what you did in the past, in the hopes of not repeating yourself, or you want to expand on something you've barely touched upon. Or maybe you're affected by some new trend you're excited about, or you're infected by some trend that you think sucks and you absolutely hate. It all feeds into this same creative experience" *********

Down in the village, the annual Halloween parade is taking place. They say it's among the best you'll see, largely because all it really is at its core is a slight compression of a carnivalesque energy that exists undisturbed throughout the rest of the year; an excuse to sublime its creative eccentricity into the absurdity it always suggests. Tonight the feeling evaporates uptown into the line curling around 34th street outside of the ballroom. By showtime the inside of the venue looks like a concert documentary directed by Stanley Kubrick; setting a deranged morbidity against dark humor and a whispering psychdelia more pronounced for those high or indulging in opium obtained from suspicious metrosexual dealers. Finally the term acid jazz, one of the other mumbling, eye averting ways in which MMW's sound has been categorized, seems to make a bit of sense. A large crowd of storm troopers, assorted members of The Royal Tennenbaums, farm animals and the more traditional skeletons and ghouls dance unaffectedly amongst each other, broken in intervals by the conservative middle-age jazz aficionado. The band emerges wearing the same masks it did on the cover of Uninvisible. Whatever this is, it's one sweeping aesthetic manifestation of an album's pathos that most bands will never get to see.

Play the piano drunk like a percussion instrument until the fingers bleed a bit, another beat lunatic wrote in 1970, and in the midst of a treatment of "Curtis", Medeski is following through, laying down hyper speed machine gun funk on the keyboards like Gregory Hines tap dancing on coke in space glue, set over a bass theme fallen out of the Sly and The Family Stone Catalogue. The fact that he's wearing a long white medical coat smattered in blood seems so logical it threatens to go unnoticed. Like the band's sound, the minimization of the distance between inspiration and execution gives the play an epiphanic feeling of conversation; that is, a good conversation, where progress is made through the reverence of each individual identity. One idea necessarily contains the residue of its antecedents, and the resulting transitional spaces between congruent grooves seem so miniscule that they more accurately represent rhythmic and harmonic morphings, an almost evolutionary sonic dynamic by which each sound darwinistically spits out the next. "You can tell what artists work out every little thing", Wood said a few hours before. "And that can be great, but it's just a whole nother thing. I've had moments like that on stage- It's entertaining and sometimes amazing, but it's just not what we do". He smirked. "Cause Billy won't let us."

"You can't focus. Ultimately, if you're really there in the moment, you can't think, it sounds tired, but it's entirely logical. I've done it, my mind has wondered before. It doesn't work. Something's happening, and I realize it's happening, and in the moment I observe it, it ends. Ultimately it's a kind of meditation, ears and sound, it sounds so corny, but its really about just being one with what's going on. It's so hard to do that in any context, music really offers that opportunity, if you can't be there you can't react quick enough to what's going on. You hesitate and the moment's passed. It's such a challenge to get to a place where you can turn off the parts of yourself that analyze and judge, and that's' what makes it new and different every time."

Each sound within the interwoven texture maintains an identity as personal, insular and distinct as the space each of the band mates occupy on stage. Medeski remains enclosed within his small laboratory of instruments, shooting the occasional side glance across the stage to verify different changes. Wood, isolated center-stage, binds the coruscating virtuosity on either side into one syncopated pulse that fleshes the bands sound into something dense and substantial. Around Martin's drum kit lie a mess of non-western percussion knick-knacks that make cameo appearances throughout the night, as indicative of the cum Bob Moses Dharma Bum bohemianism that veils itself over his thought as of those band's trans-continental sonic jaunts. Mid way through the set the band is joined by opener Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, later by Trey Anastasio Band percussionist Cyro Baptista, fresh off gigs at Lincoln Center with his band Beat the Donkey. "We're only as good as a group as each of us is individually", Martin said. " It's so important to be constantly learning, especially other styles of music, to play with great musicians of any kind, like the ones we're playing with, but even the ones playing music you don't necessarily like. It's a two way street with a band, you know? You have to grow inside and outside, and if you're not growing, you're dead, basically, like they say. And that's why we're able to be together, it stays fresh."

As midnight approaches the three amble back out onstage for a few last songs, balancing a night of new material with some staples. The band takes deep, collective instrumental breaths and lets out streams of associative improve more manic than a Robin Williams tirade, the voice sinking into oblivion as air runs out before the idea. A treatment of " Chub Subb "offers a vibe as creeping an ominous as the basslines Wood lays down throughout the set, his bass hopping down rhythmic stairs with its feet tied together, producing the staccato, spastically undecided groove of a repressed park avenue accountant dancing drunkenly and parodically in some downtown hip hop club. Anonymous skulls, it need hardly be said, another track of the new album, comes off like a meeting of some strange jazz cult, creating a cavernous dark atmosphere broken by the sole light of Martin's loping, bowlegged rhythmic anchorings. I even have a weird non-sensical moment where I think to myself "this feels very Catholic" and check to see that no one slipped something into my drink, eyeing the goalie suspiciously. Somewhere Phish applauds its friends from its new seat in oblivion next to Hammerstein, after bailing just before being appropriated by the pretentious hippie commune helplessly accrued by all bands that just want to play music.

"It's very healing, sometimes", Medeski had told me. "I've been dead sick with a migraine and play a gig and I'm fine, that's the truth. That's the transcendence of it. It becomes an addictive thing, if I'm not playing for a few days, and by that I mean just sitting at the piano and playing, I expect to freak out when I come home, things will be weird". He smiles mischievously. I'll start beating up my girlfriend or something."
It's Halloween, and that's the way things sound tonight. Never a profound moment without a bit of darkness around it.

"At a certain point", Martin says, "especially with people who like jazz, the language of music is really intense and beautiful and elegant. If everything happened simultaneously, that same sense of acceptance and the love for melody and song, it would be great. It's sad that it hasn't been like that." The four of us had sat there for a moment in silence, before Wood had looked up, puncturing it. "But at the same time, the fact that people are showing up like this for our gigs, I guess, means that they need something else".

After all, the venue is sold out, despite the fact that the abbreviated speech Martin gives thanking the crowd forms the first words spoken into the microphone all night.

Not bad.

Considering, after all, that this is art music, and all of us here, we’re the pop generation.

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