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Published: 2009/02/17
by Mike Greenhaus

Three Seasons of Medeski Martin & Wood

Billy Martin had a busy 2008 to say the least. In addition to a myriad of solo projects and visual art exhibits, Medeski Martin & Wood released a kids’ album, recorded an installment in John Zorn’s The Book of Angels series and prepared material for no less than three season-specific releases as part of their Radiolarians project. Somewhere in there Martin also found time to interview Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart for the cover story of the February/March Relix.

Beginning this evening, MMW will celebrate both the Radiolarians series and their rich history with New York City via three shows spread across tiny, brand new New York venues (92Y TriBeCA, Le Poisson Rouge and City Winery, respectively). In the following interview, Martin tells us the history behind his band’s Downtown Tour, opens up about the Radiolarians series and lets us know what’s next for three of reigning kings of experimental groove music.

Medeski Martin & Wood are playing a show at three very different Manhattan venues this week. What was the initial idea behind this mini-tour of New York?

It’s just tied to the idea of wanting to be in New York and sort of playing more of a residency. That is something we used to do at the Knitting Factory or Tonica week straight of shows. So it’s just another way of doing that and another conceptual way of being around New York more. One of the things we strive for these days is being closer to home. We want to be around our families and still make music and try to make a little money. So it is a combination of thatit has nothing to do with the records Radiolarians 1-3, although, I they will be unofficial release parties where we will play that material. We’ve never mixed-up the Radiolarians material in our sets because we did one each season and that was that. Each tour was strictly tied to the material off that Radiolarians release. Now it is sort of like our hand-picked favorites from each release each night. They’re all pretty good as far as I’m concerned.

If I am correct, you have never played these three venues before this week. Was that a factor in choosing what rooms to play?

Booking agents [laughs]. Well, you know, I’m out of touch with what’s going on in New York as far as where to play. I did realize that Le Poisson Rouge is the old Village Gatethat’s the first place we ever played. When they had the street-level bar they would have a small combo play there. At first they didn’t have drums up there because of the cabaret laws, and then they got the license and everybody was able to have drums and that’s when I joined John [Medeski]. At the time, John was doing duets and stuff. So we did our first gig at the Village Gate.

Chris [Wood] and John were playing togetherthey had met up in Boston and they played with Bob Moses who I knew for a long time. John would come down and do duets with Reggie Workman, the bass player. And then John started doing duets with other bass players, and he had Chris come down, and they were kind of doing duet stuff. When the drum chair came back, they had a couple other drummers come down, and then we met and just decided to get together at my place. Somehow, I don’t know exactly what the story is chronologically, but we did our first gig with me John and Chris at the Village Gate.

The downstairs was the bigger stage [where MMW will play this week] and, you know, I played there with Bob Moses and the Lounge Lizards. So there’s history with that one, but it just reopened. I thought it was gone forever. So it’s some kind of a reincarnation of that place. I just learned that that was the old Village Gate, so that’s cool.

It is funny how things come full circle.

Yeah, the thing about New York that I thought would have been cool would be to play all the boroughs. To me that would be a real tour, but it ended up being thisI don’t know why. I thought we were going to play Williamsburg at least. But this is fine, it’s all Manhattan and fuck it. We haven’t played Staten Island, we haven’t played the Bronx. Actually, we might have played the Bronx, maybe Queens College or something. But definitely not Staten Island. We should do a tri-state area tour.

Well, speaking of MMW’s connections with these venues, Knitting Factory founder Michael Dorf is something of the visionary behind City Winery where you guys are playing this Thursday.

I know, I know. Yep, that will be interesting. He’s got another scheme goin’ [laughs]. We’ll see. I think it’ll be good. You know, the idea with that show is that it’s wine related because of us being into wineespecially John. So it is kind of thematically interesting. And then we’re doing a pairing with Cyro Baptista. You are supposed to pair your food to your wine, so we’re pairing Cyro with the band that night.

He’s an old friend and recently played with us on Jam Cruise. We decided that he would play with us there, but we didn’t know when and how many times, and we realized we wanted him all the time [laughs]. We knew we were going to have one gig with him, and then we decided let’s do both gigs. And then I knew I was going to be doing the workshop with him or at least be there. So we pretty much decided that he was going to be playing with us ahead of timethat was the deal. Well, that wasn’t the deal originally. I think that they asked Cyro to go there and do something with the band, and it ended up this way which I’m very happy about.

You recently wrapped-up the third installment in the Radiolarians series. Do you plan to tour behind this material for a few more months or is MMW already looking ahead to its next project.

We’re kind of in limbo with exactly what we’re going to set out to do, but we have enough repertoires to carry us to the next project because we’ve only played this Radiolarians material once. So now we’ve got this large repertoire to play and it will still be new to everybody. So that’s something to explore and then I think we’re going to get into the studio and do something else.

Now that you’re done with the project, what are your thoughts as to its experimental approach?

I was really happy with how it turned out. It was a little bitit just kind of happened. The concept was started off by John, and the idea was to play seasonal music. Our idea was that we were going to tour and then record like we did with Shack-Man. When we did Shack-Man, we had played that music a bunch. The majority of that music we had been playing and developing it on the road, and then we went to Hawaii to record it and added a couple of other things.

That’s the only similarity to anything else we’ve ever done. So John was just kind of like, “Let’s do a seasonal thing, let’s do it this way.” It was a way for us to write together and a way for us to sort of make a record. Since we have a label, it was sort of an efficient way to do it. So we would get thrown into like, three days we would write and rehearse and then we would hit the road soon after that and then we would play that music. It was intense, you know? It was like, “Oh my god, we don’t know what we’re really writing or how it’s going to develop,” and you kind of have to go with that. And then when you get on the road, you have to remember what you did, and you gotta play it every night and work it and develop it. A little bit of a painful process, but that’s what it is to be creative. So it turned out better, and I think every record got better. We learned a lot about the process of doing that.

Every record is super unique unto itself. I mean, thematically, the idea was seasonal. The music that we were playing at the time, it had nothing to do with reflecting on the season at the time, but that’s what we produced at the time. The records just get really strong in a lot of different ways. The first one is not a weak record, but in some ways it’s more out there. So all three combined in a set, which hopefully we’ll get to a box set, a DVD and you know, really tell the whole story by the end of the year hopefully. I’m very pleased. And we just mastered the second one so that’s comin’ out in a few months and then the third one is ready to be mixedwe recorded that at the end of the year.

There are only three volumes in the Radiolarians series. What happened to the fourth season?

Yeah. Well it depends on what planet you’re from, there are only three seasons on our planet. We’re just visitors here [laughs].

Last year MMW also recorded an album of John Zorn material. Do you plan to incorporate any of that material into your upcoming sets?

Yeah, I think it would be nice to. It is a good suggestion, and it probably will come up. We actually have done that in the past like pulled out a few of the tunes. I would like to do that too, it just depends, we’ll see. We’re going to Europe this summer, we’re gonna do all that music. The European jazz tour will be all that music. Promoters love concepts, especially in Europe.

In addition to your three shows with MMW this week, you are playing a fourth New York gig at the Whitney Museum with Dave Burrell. Can you talk a little bit about that performance?

Dave Burrell is an incredible pianist who has his own language. I met him about three years ago at the Vision Fest when I was playing with Wayne Horvitz. So with Wayne we did this gig, and we were doing soundcheck and Dave Burrell was just sitting there checking us out, and he said he really liked it. And then I listened to him play and it was just so liberating to hear him play. Mat Maneri was on it and I think it was William Parker. When he soloed is really what got me. They played after us that night, and I stuck around to listen to his set and particularly when they gave him a solo, it was like he just was like the whole range from symphonic classical colorings to abstractions. He’s played with all these people that normally don’t have piano players, like Albert Ayler or Ornette [Coleman]. He’s played with all these guys you know, and he’s been around since the 60s, 70s in New York.

Anyway, he’s a master improviser, and we just have this chemistry. So the next year, we decided to a gig in Philly. So that got recorded and I released that album Consequences. And then after that we did a Vision Festival gig, and that’s really it. I think we only played like two or three times together, but every time it’s really cool. He’s been trying to get me to come to Europe which for some reason doesn’t ever happen. I’d love to tour with him just as a duet. But he got this Whitney gigI don’t know if it’s a residency for him, but he asked me to do it, so I’m doing it. And it’s just going to be a duet, that’s all I know. I’ll be on drums and percussion, really free. Although he told me he had some material so I don’t know. He might at least just have some kind of road map for himself, we’ll see.

It sounds like you are learning to multi-task these days.

I’ve never been good at that. As I get older, I feel like I have this built-in language, and if I can’t just play music with these people, and I have to prepare for them. But, I feel like it’s not truly who I am. I’ve been working on improvising and playing music in the freer way. With John and Chris, we’ve developed this way to write. We have a kind of repertoire that we’ve worked on in the past and then we have new stuff to play free on which we don’t know what it is. So for that it’s just basically John and Chris and I get together before the set…a lot of times it’s John and Chris who have to work out the harmonic changes on some of the stuff, but other than that it really just flows from memory. The other side gigs in general, I just do a lot of improvising. It’s all about the chemistry between the players, and we don’t really talk about it at all, it’s very liberating in that way. All the conversation, anything that has to do with what we are going to play is done on the stage, when we play. That’s how it is. So preparing for that is more like just having a good moment of silence, but also taking some of the energy onto the stage that you bring from your life.

Finally, you recently interviewed Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann for the February/March issue of Relix. What did you take from that experience?

I guess the big question, even for the editor, was the connection of MMW with The Dead. And I’ve always been like, “I don’t see the connection at all.” None of us listened to The Dead as kids. Well, you couldn’t avoid it, it was somewhere. One of my best friends would listen to them and he would go to their concerts, but I never went. So that was like the deep question, what is the connection?

So after the conversation, the biggest parallel to Mickey and Bill is that they have an unspoken language that they bring to the stage and in the chemistry in how they play. Sometimes they’ll look at each other and then they change, they have this freedom to go where they want and everybody collectively works it out onstage. And I feel like that’s the connection right there. I think because they love jazz too and world music, it’s more of that style of a collective of musicians, not a conceptual: Here’s my song, you guys are going to play it. It’s more like, “Let’s play together, I’m into this, you’re into that let’s throw it all in there. This is my personality, that’s your personality.”

That is the one thing I felt like I learnedthat there is a connection with how The Dead plays and that philosophy and how we play. So that was kind of cool because I was really at a loss at first. I have utmost respect for Mickey and Bill as drummers and as musicians and as personalities. They’re also artists and leaders in their own sense and have an influence on people. So I respect all that stuff, that they’ve been able to take it on an independent path is really fantastic. So I was honored to do it. Sometimes you just gotta get thrown into the fire man because I had no background. I did a little research on them and made some connections.

_Mike Greenhaus documents his own New York Tour at www.greenhauseffect.com

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